Bankers Fume at Fall From Grace in Berlin Play: Review

His old office was carpeted, with curtains reaching to the floor. Now Bertram Ansberger, a banker in a new piece at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater, has to endure linoleum and no windows, even if he gets to keep his chauffeur.

Andres Veiel’s “Das Himbeerreich” (the title literally translates as “The Raspberry Empire”) is based on interviews with more than 20 top German bankers who survived the financial crisis with their wealth and privileges intact, yet lost the influence they once had.

Veiel spoke to them on condition of anonymity (some may have risked losing pensions if identified) and melded the interviews into a stage collage of their thoughts on the banking meltdown. It can’t really be called a play; it is a collection of loosely linked monologues, and with no plot or dramatic tension, it’s a hard format to sustain for nearly two hours.

Even so “Das Himbeerreich” is a brave attempt to bring derivatives, rating agencies, subprime mortgages, state bailouts and banking bonuses to the theater-going public. To many Berliners this is an alien, even hostile world -- unlike most European capitals, the city is not a national financial center.

The six characters philosophize and self-justify, by turns enraged and bewildered, disillusioned and unrepentant. Above all, they resent the loss of power, a greater amphetamine for these five alpha men and one woman than money could ever be. The millions have long since ceased to have meaning except as a point of comparison with peers.

Glass Elevators

The set is a gray, nondescript area that could be a lobby or a waiting room, with two glass elevators that glide up and down on either side. One banker, dismayed at the cut-throat direction his industry has taken, looks back with nostalgia.

“We always used to ask where money is needed and put it there,” he recalls. “Today we don’t ask where it’s needed, but where it can achieve the highest returns.”

Much of the responsibility for the crisis of ethics is laid at the German government’s door, with bankers recalling times when politicians prodded them to take greater risks to help Frankfurt keep pace with New York and London as a financial center.

“It’s not as though a couple of nutcases suddenly start doing crazy deals,” observes one character. “The political establishment has to create the right structures.”

High Stakes

Avoiding becoming prey for bigger U.S. banks is another reason cited for high-stakes gambles. Brigitte Manzinger, a tough female banker who still champions her former employer, defends a foolhardy acquisition as necessary.

“Otherwise we wouldn’t exist anymore -- Citibank or Deutsche Goldman would be the name emblazoned on our branches.”

Veiel is known as a documentary maker, notably for his highly acclaimed film “Black Box BRD” about Alfred Herrhausen, a Deutsche Bank AG chief executive who was murdered in 1989. Veiel also made a fictionalized feature about the origins of the Baader-Meinhof gang, called “If Not Us, Who.”

The material he gleaned about the financial crisis from bankers is crying out for documentary treatment, though with anonymous sources, that would be hard to pull off. An alternative could have been a drama with character development and plot. Rating: **

“Das Himbeerreich” is in repertory at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The next performances are on Feb. 27, March 6, March 11 and March 14.

What the Stars Mean:
***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

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