In a skyscraper left vacant for six years after the merging of two giant financial institutions made it redundant, former investment banker Rainer Voss lays bare his experience of our most recent worldwide economic crisis and offers up his portents of doom for the future of global finance. Middle-aged and with a well-worn face that still manages to be both ruddy and bright-eyed, Voss meanders through insights both professional and personal, recounting how as a junior executive he became obsessed with the ever increasing rapidity with which one could make mind-bogglingly huge piles of money by moving it from one place to another from instant to instant. Master of the Universe serves as a sort of somber other side to the same coin that films like Wall Street and The Wolf Of Wall Street manage to make so glamorous.
Director Marc Bauder wrings every last minimalistic and beautifully geometric shot he can from the husk of the virtually brand-new, dust-covered, and creepily empty high-rise, itself a symbol of the unchecked and consummately short-sighted activities of international bankers in the run-up to the fantastic collapse of 2008. Bauder slowly, methodically follows Voss through floor after floor of what was designed to be a titan of the financial sector, now completely barren aside from expanses of network cable still making an appearance here or there in elaborate communication hubs serving nothing. Voss recounts the narcotic effect of making split-second trades that could ripple throughout the entirety of global finance, leaving the one who made the trade with a sublime feeling of immense power. As a young man from an unremarkable town, Voss steadily ascended the ranks of Frankfurt’s financial elite through working two, sometimes three days in a row without breaks, explaining with both pride and regret that he made the decision to forgo paternity leave in order to be more productive for his bank. There’s a weird mix of selfishness and dedication to a larger entity at play here, and it’s riveting to watch as Bauder coaxes answers out of Voss, allowing his camera to linger uncomfortably, while Voss, seemingly against his better judgment, admits all sorts of things he did that he isn’t terribly proud of these days.
Through a long and subtle shift from the excitement and giddy remembrance of money power plays to a devastating and resigned admission that Voss’ family life has largely slipped him by, Bauder’s film hypnotically (if perhaps a bit too slowly) refuses the easy answers and hypotheses of other films concerning the financial implosion. Master of the Universe is a sobering attempt at coming to grips with the reality that the system of global finance is one so complex and multi-faceted that finding a moral way to interface with it is becoming more and more impossible. Voss, by way of several examples of the labyrinthine nature of trading global financial products, eventually susses out probable explanations for why Greece, Italy, and Spain are as screwed as they are (and why France is next). Suffice to say, with the amount of intersecting and sometimes conflicting laws of various sovereign entities throughout the world, it’s possible to game the system and virtually rob nations of their GDP, which is made all the more vile by the slight glint you see in Voss’ eye as he reveals this One Neat Trick™ to destroying a specific country’s economy.
It’s difficult to do justice to just how spare a film Master of the Universe is. Aside from an interpretation of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater by Bach and two minimalistic pieces by B. Fleischmann, the film is devoid of any sound effects. There are shades of General Orders No. 9, another great minimalist documentary, but while that rumination on the decay of the American South featured long, meditative shots, here we are essentially trapped by the building Bauder decided to shoot in. The effect is chilling, although at times so monotonous as to verge on the exhausting.