Friday, 28 November 2014

Alles muss raus (4 Stars)

"Everything must go". That's the literal translation of the film's title. It's a recent German film made for television, first broadcast in October 2014. As I've pointed out before, German television films are usually made with large budgets, so the quality is as high as films made for the cinema. This is certainly the case for this three-hour family drama. It gripped me from the first minutes, and I was unable to look away.

The film is about a fictional company, Faber, with more than 8000 drug stores throughout Germany, that went bankrupt in 2012. Supposedly fictional. Even though the names of the main characters have been changed, the similarity to the company Schlecker is so obvious that everyone knows what it's really about.

The film begins with the 70th birthday party of the company founder Max Faber. He's still in good health for his age, but he uses the occasion to appoint his daughter Kerstin as the second company director, next to himself. It sounds to everyone that she is to be his equal, but he has already told his division chiefs that they are not to give her any information about the company finances. He has a good reason for this. Following the advice of a dubious cocaine snorting investment banker he has just made a stock market loss of 200 million Euros. This is all the more shocking when we discover later in the film that the investment banker personally earned 600 million Euros from the same deal. Isn't there a law against insider trading in Germany? Nevertheless, Max took out a loan in the company's name to speculate, and now the bank wants its money back.

When Kerstin finally realises what is happening -- which is unavoidable when she sees that Faber's suppliers are refusing to deliver goods due to non-payment -- she finds a Dutch investor willing to save the company. The investor's only condition is that Max should step down and let Kerstin continue as the sole company director. Max refuses and makes it clear that he would rather close down his company than let it be taken away from him. He's an old-school company owner, which is the very reason that the investor wants to ditch him. "What's mine is mine". Despite having a nationwide company under his control he likes to walk into local branches and shout at the employees if he thinks they're doing something wrong.

Schlecker, to use the company's real name, was one of the best known store chains in Germany. I call them "drug stores", for want of a better word, but the German word "Drogerie" isn't quite the same as an American "drug store". Think of it as a supermarket that sells everything except food. I used to shop at Schlecker. It was cheap. But that was the reason for its notoriety. The cheap prices were because the store hired only women and paid them low wages, well below the usual German wage levels. The Schleckerfrauen (Schlecker women), as the press called them, couldn't complain about sexual discrimination, because there were no men to compare their wages with. The stores were under-staffed, which led to anecdotally high levels of shop-lifting, but it was all part of the company policy. It was cheaper to accept loss through shop-lifting than hire extra staff. When Schlecker went bankrupt in 2012 it was women who went onto the street protesting. They weren't paid much, but it was all they had.

The film also follows the story of a typical women affected by the bankruptcy, Janine Krause, a single woman living in poor quality accommodation in Berlin. She finds out that she's pregnant too late to have an abortion. Then she hears that she will lose her job. Just one story among thousands.

This film has already been given high critical acclaim. Don't expect an English version any time soon, but I recommend it to anyone who can speak German.

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