August 13, 2010 8:21 pm

Anti-capitalism made beautiful

This film is a ravishing indictment of the frenzy of modern life

Many people have wondered, in the two years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, what will remain of global capitalism as it existed before the fall. To judge from the recent US financial reform bill, the answer is: almost everything. A more natural question is what will be left of pre-crash anti-capitalism. German television watchers were given a chance to assess its track record when Let’s Make Money, a documentary by the Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer, aired on national television two weeks ago. This German-language film is pre-crash anti-globalism in its most highly developed form. It appeared in late 2008, almost simultaneously with the acute phase of the world financial crisis. It is a beautiful film, and Mr Wagenhofer was justly awarded last year’s German Documentary Film Prize. To credit him with prescience about the global system, though, is to go a bit far. 

Let’s Make Money purports to follow the savings of an average depositor as they travel through the global economy, and to lay out the terrible injustices they pay for, particularly in poor countries, in order to grow. While Mr Wagenhofer loses this thread, he winds up with an engaging travelogue that ricochets back and forth between the developing world and Europe. There are vivid and moving shots of the poor of the global south: men mining gold with explosives in Ghana; children sleeping on streets in Chennai; and, most alarmingly, men and women picking, packing and weighing cotton in Burkina Faso. The cotton monoculture that global demand imposed on Burkina Faso has turned the place into a desert. Life expectancy is 42 years, and 62 per cent of the population earns less than a dollar a day. 

Within a few minutes we have a good idea of Mr Wagenhofer’s technique of persuasion (or, if you like, propaganda). Africans and Asians appear in this film only to suffer; the growing middle classes of India are not visible even peripherally. Other Bric countries are ignored. The Europeans (buttressed by a few experts from poor countries) are there to explicate, and are set up as good guys and bad guys. After Mr Wagenhofer’s arresting scenes of developing world penury, globalisation’s detractors look selfless and prophetic, while its defenders look gullible or predatory.

For example, when Mark Mobius, long-time president of the Templeton Emerging Markets Fund, says: “Globalisation has a very bad connotation but actually globalisation has been very good for all countries around the world,” this commonsensical view looks like an outlandish imposture. (It did not help Mr Mobius that he allowed himself to be filmed in gaudy candy-striped shirts and doing awkward exercises in his gym.) Conversely, anyone with an axe to grind against the global economy looks like a seer willing to speak truth to power, no matter how outlandish his assertions. The author John Perkins, who describes himself as a “former economic hit man”, appears to believe that the US invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein sought to sell oil in currency other than dollars.

Although the global capitalism Mr Wagenhofer despises went wrong, and although he certainly expected it to go wrong, that is not the same as saying he had any idea why it would go wrong. He had all his bases covered. If you had wanted to draw a policy prescription from this film, fixing the opaque and overleveraged financial system that brought the world to grief would have been far down the list: a second- or third-order task. Although Mr Wagenhofer treats the Spanish housing bubble towards the end of his film, the most grievous problem he identifies is over-specialisation by country. The poor parts of the world become producers of raw materials and rich ones profit from high-value-added manufactures and services. This problem arising more from open trade than from the credit bubbles that popped two years ago.

Films, of course, are a bad place for making arguments. If, as the old saying goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, then making films about economics is stranger still. Documentaries take ideas or arguments – which can be good or bad, but never, ever complex – and emotionalise them. The documentary is the perfect medium for disguising the weakness of weak ideas, and that is why so few documentaries have lasting resonance. It is hard to imagine that anyone outside a university course in social history, for example, would think it worthwhile to watch a Michael Moore film 20 years from now.

But that is where Mr Wagenhofer’s film vaults free of the constraints of his genre. Let’s Make Money is not a serious alternative economic argument. It is nonetheless a film of overwhelming power. It resembles an art film such as Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Godfrey Reggio’s haunting, wordless indictment of the frenzy of modern life, far more than Mr Moore’s political rants. Mr Wagenhofer has a perfect sense of pictorial composition and, more uncannily, for sound: the keening of seagulls in Chennai as people sleep on the beaches below, the rattling of brittle cotton bushes as people pick in Africa, the xylophonic tinkle of rocks being broken into gravel with small hammers (for 50 cents a day), and even the silence of an African migrant worker making himself a mayonnaise sandwich before sunrise in the wretched apartment where he lives in the Costa del Sol. What film can do as well as any essay is to convey indefinable foreboding, the feeling that something is somehow wrong. Mr Wagenhofer was right to have this feeling. He cannot claim to have predicted the financial crisis in his beautiful film. But not many others can claim that, either.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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