Gangs that rob and run banks, Spanish TV and Netflix
Tuesday, 07 July 2020 05:35

Gangs that rob and run banks, Spanish TV and Netflix

Dennis Broe continues the series on streaming TV with a critical look at Money Heist, and the machinations of Netflix 

The fourth season of Alex Pina’s Money Heist was released on Netflix last month, and his new show White Lines premiered on the same service in May. There is a world of difference between the splendour of Money Heist and the misery of White Lines, which points to possible problems with the streaming service, whose European headquarters is now just outside Madrid.

First, let's look at the genius of Money Heist, a series that was more appropriately titled, in its Spanish TV release, La Casa de Papel (House of Paper), recalling Marx’s characterization of capitalism as a house of cards. Netflix purchased the first season of the series and cut it into two seasons. Spanish TV shows average 70 minutes, but Netflix felt that was too much of a challenge for Anglo-American and global audiences, who are more used to shows of 45 minutes.

The first season took off, watched in 44 million households, the top ratings hit on the service for a show whose language is not English. The series was by far the most popular last year in Western Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain) and one of the most popular in the world. Netflix then signed its creator Alex Pina to an exclusive deal, and poured money into what is effectively Season Two of the series.

There is what might be called an allegory of production in this new season. Just as the producers are now more flush with money, so are the characters, having pulled off a successful heist in season one. They release 140 million euros to the Spanish populace, in a huge crowd scene, dumping it from zeppelins like modern day Robin Hoods, and use the funds to secure themselves supporters as well as access to the Bank of Spain to save a member of their band.

Why the phenomenal success of the show? The best way to answer that is to think about two major changes the show makes to the heist film, its master genre. Thieves in this long and honorable genre are often enclaves of marginalized or working-class gangs formed to steal money from an impregnable fortress (The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Lavender Hill Mob).  

La Casa de Papel, on the other hand, has the gang breaking into the national mint, not to steal money, but to print money – just as the European Central Bank printed money in the wake of the financial collapse in 2007-2008 and the European sovereign debt crisis. Only the ECB money went to bail out banks and corporations, or to further indebt governments who then had to cut social services to pay the original loan. This austerity treatment was particularly acute in Spain, La Casa de Papel’s home country.

In contrast, Season One of Money Heist was about printing money for the people, in this case a ragtag underclass gang of thieves. So the show’s support across European countries ravaged with debt and victims of austerity, while watching corporate and financial power increase through quantitative easing or money printing, was clearly a vote for using the state’s power to print for the benefit of all, instead of for the wealth of a few.

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The importance of addressing this inequality is stressed in key moments near the end of the first season. The Professor, the gang leader, has been courting Murillo, the cop who is pursuing him. When she finds out he is the gang leader she is furious at his betrayal. But after he explains what the ECB has been doing in terms of rescuing the financial elite and leaving everyone else in the lurch, she changes and becomes his ally and his lover for real. Later, a male colleague, who loves her – as in Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar’s films, there are many conflicting circuits of desire in the series – is about to turn her in when she tells him that it is not clear in this situation who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Because of that revelation, and his love for her, he lets her go free.  

Season Two has the gang breaking into the Spanish National Bank and tapping the state’s gold reserves, melting them down and mixing them with trinkets. With the global loss of confidence in the US dollar, heightened by the weakness of the Trump administration, many nations, led by Russia and China, are starting to sell off their dollar reserves and convert them to gold. But again, the national treasury either hordes the precious metal or uses it to boost the finance industry with little benefit to its citizens.

The gang’s attempt to melt down and then spread the gold – using, as Murillo explains, furnaces purchased from Germany, one of Spain’s austerity torturers – is another effort to address the general redistribution of wealth upwards by the state. This demand was understood by the Spanish state which refused to allow shooting anywhere near the actual bank. Both seasons then present a wish fulfillment that is also the mark of a demand for equality.

The second major change to the heist film is the intention of the undertaking in Season Two, not only to break into the bank and secure the gold, but to retrieve their captured comrade Rio, taken and tortured by the Spanish police and intelligence service. The Professor explains to the gang that they will always be hunted and may be picked off at any moment. His aim is to reverse the way the country thinks about them and instead call attention to the repressive aspects of a state which also furthers inequality. In other words, to tell a different tale about who are the good guys and who the bad guys, so that the gang will no longer be thought of as criminals but rather as justified redistributors of wealth.                           

Previously, most heist films ended with the gang either dead or dispersed (Asphalt Jungle) or in handcuffs (The Lavender Hill Mob), though in more modern and especially in African-American female-centered examples of the genre, either one member of the gang (Set It Off) or several (Widows) do escape and are able to use the money. The professor’s goal of shifting public opinion to exonerate the thieves and concentrate on the actual thieves in the government radically alters the contours of the genre.

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Outside the bank are throngs of red-suited protestors wearing the gang’s Dali masks, which recall the equally anarchic V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks. The scene is also reminiscent of the Madrid Plaza del Sol anti-austerity movement, the Indignados (meaning indigent or destitute), which gave rise to Podemos, now one of the parties in power in Spain.

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Perhaps the sentiment behind the series is an attempt to link it with older currents of Spanish anarchism. This sentiment references the contemporary Spanish film, also on Netflix, Gun City, set at the height of the anarchist movement in Barcelona in the 1920s. The state in Casa de Papel Season Two is exposed as an unlawful entity, with links to Francoist fascism, that kidnaps, tortures and holds prisoners without charging them. Rio recounts the torture methods, including being buried alive, on a Times Square-type Jumbotron that is broadcast across the world and counters positive depictions of kidnapping and torture in American series such as 24, and more subtly in Homeland.

The global multitude

There is also an attempt in Season Two to evoke a global “multitude” as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri describe world collectivity. In a prescient anticipation of Corona culture, Tokyo – the gang adopts city names in a nod to Tarantino’s color names in Reservoir Dogs – attempts an operation on a wounded member with remote help from a doctor in the gang’s computer center in Pakistan. Equally, the final gambit of the season, a sort of fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, depends on the efficiency and solidarity of miners from Asturias.

The counter to the rigidity of the police state in the series is the desire of the gang, which often overflows boundaries and leads to entanglements, but as in Almodovar’s films is also seen as a source of their power. Two moments in particular are worth pointing out, both involving music.

In Season One, the appropriately named Moscow, as he is digging a tunnel to get out of the mint, sings “Bella Ciao,” a song which is refrained multiple times in the series and was an anti-fascist rallying cry in the “Red Zone” in Northern Italy, as workers and peasants battled the Nazis.

The second, among many, moments of desire is Berlin’s rendition of the Cuban song “Guantanamera”. Berlin martyrs himself in Season One but returns in flashback in Season Two as more pure object of desire, and less macho and sadistic. In terms of his life on the series, as Shakespeare says, “nothing becomes him quite like the leaving of it.”

He dances with himself and sings this Cuban folk song about a peasant girl from Guantanamo – as we cut to the working-class woman Nairobi inside the bank vault, who tries on the gold ingots as earrings.

It’s as close as television comes to what Kant called the sublime, those most beautiful moments of nature. The scene recalls similar musical sequences in the cinema such as Scorsese’s pool shark running the table to the accompaniment of “Werewolves of London” in The Color of Money. Or Spike Lee’s transcendent club dance scene scored to “Too Late to Turn Back Now”, celebrating the enduring spirit of the collectivity of Black Power, in BlackKkKlansman. Berlin’s plaintive voice and elegant dance, illustrated by Nairobi’s appropriation of the gold ingots, is the equal to both.

Alex Pina, Netflix, and Spanish TV Production   

After Season One of Casa de Papel, Alex Pina signed an exclusive deal with Netflix. The results so far are mixed and point to some potential problems. Season Two started off well, but then at the midpoint began to stretch out and focus not on the gang’s duel with the repressive apparatus of the state, but on internal enemies and foes within the bank. This stretching out results in the necessity, driven more by commercial than narrative considerations, for a Season Three, but also leaves audiences feeling that the promise of the second season was not fulfilled in that season.

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Alex Pina’s next project for Netflix was the just-released White Lines, an Ibiza sexfest that does recall the go-go years of the island when it was one of the European club and techno capitals. The story of the uncovering of a murder that happened twenty years ago allows the series to frequently flash back to this golden era.

However, the show has little to recommend it. It’s been called a “trashy beach novel” and what a falling-off is this from the heights of the pre-Netflix Season One of Casa de Papel. It seems more like a knockoff to fulfill a contract obligation than a series. In Britain after World War II Hollywood had to produce “quota quickies”, to allow import of their “A” material. Those films though did feature some stunning film noirs, unlike this quota quickie which if you subtract the sex and drugs isn’t even a cabana on the Ibiza beach – more like a wet towel.

Pina’s next project, before Netflix Seasons Five and Six of Money Heist, sounds like it is back on track. Titled Sky Rojo (Red Sky), it involves three sex workers from Cuba, Argentina and Spain fleeing both their pimp and the police. 

Netflix has bet heavily on Spanish film and television, most likely after the European and global success of Money Heist, having set up their European headquarters in Tres Cantos, near Madrid. All Spanish film and television production has been suspended since mid-March due to the coronavirus crisis. The streaming service, as part of a 100-million-dollar global fund, has supported the cast and crew of its Spanish productions and Spanish film and television in general.

The question though is this. Is this a pure gift, or is it also a way of Netflix further insinuating itself into the Spanish film and television landscape at a time when its films and series could have taken off globally without Netflix? The more essential the American streaming services become to the functioning of local film and television industries, the greater the chance of those industries losing their autonomy – which suits the monopolistic tendencies of transnational capitalist media corporations like Netflix.