Money for nothing and gold for free on Netflix and Spanish TV
Dali and red jump suits versus the Bank of Spain

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 splendor of Money Heist and the misery of White Lines. The discrepancy points to possible problems with the streaming service whose European headquarters is now just outside Madrid.

First, the genius of Money Heist, a series that was more appropriately titled, in its Spanish TV release, La Casa de Papel or House of Paper, which, of course, recalls 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 and global audiences and divided the show into more bite-sized episodes of approximately 45 minutes.

The first season, partially it seems even to the surprise of the streaming service itself, 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 the most popular show 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 really season two of the series on Netflix seasons three and four—as well as announcing a season five in the future.

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 prototype of the heist film. Thieves in this long and honorable genre are often enclaves of marginalized or working-class bands 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 in season one the band breaking into the national mint, not to steal money, but to print money, just the way in the wake of the financial collapse in 2007-08 and then the European Sovereign Debt Crisis, the European Central Bank printed money. Only the ECB money went to bail out banks and corporations or to increase government debt. These governments were then taxed with cutting social services to pay the original loan. This austerity was particularly acute in La Casa de Papel’s home country Spain.

Season one of Money Heist, reversing this trend, was about printing money that was put in the hands of the people, in this case, a ragtag underclass band of thieves. The show’s overwhelming ratings were a rallying across European countries ravaged with debt and victims of austerity while watching corporate and financial power increase through quantitative easing or money printing. The support was a vote for using the state’s power to print money for the benefit of all, instead of for the wealth of a few.

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—there are, à la Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar, 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 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 as a way of smuggling the gold out of the bank. With the global loss of confidence in the U.S. dollar, heightened by the flailing of the Trump administration, nations led by Russia and China are starting to sell off their dollar reserves and convert them to gold. But again, Spanish and European treasuries often horde the precious metal or use it to boost the finance industry with little benefit to their citizens. The gang’s attempt to melt down and then spread the gold uses, as Murillo explains, furnaces purchased from one of Spain’s austerity torturers, Germany. The heist itself is another effort to address the general redistribution of wealth upward which the state furthers. This redistribution was understood by the Spanish state, which refused to allow filming 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 the series makes to the heist film involves the mission of the gang. Not only to break into the bank and secure the gold but also to retrieve and restore the reputation of their captured comrade Rio. He had been kidnapped 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 goal in this mission 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. 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.

Previous heist films ended with the gang either dead or dispersed (Asphalt Jungle) or in handcuffs (The Lavender Hill Mob). 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.

The gang comforting each other

Outside the bank are throngs of red-suited protestors wearing the gang’s Dali masks, which recall as well 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 (the indignant and angry), which gave rise to Podemos, now one of the parties in power in Spain.

These sentiments link the series to older currents of Spanish anarchism. This attack on the state also references Netflix’s just-released Spanish film 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. His description of the brutality of security agencies’ unlawful treatment of their victims counters positive depictions of kidnapping and torture in American series such as 24 and more subtly in Homeland.

There is also an attempt in season two to elicit 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 is a fairy-tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs rescue of the Professor’s “princess” Murillo that depends on the efficiency and camaraderie of miners from Asturias.

The counter to the rigidity of the police state is the desire of the gang, which often overflows boundaries and leads to entanglements but, as in Almodóvar’s films, is equally seen as the source of their power. Two striking moments in particular both involve music.

In season one, the appropriately named Moscow, as he is digging a tunnel to get out of the mint, sings “Bella Ciao.” The song 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.

A second satisfying moment of desire is Berlin’s rendition of the Cuban song “Guantanamera.” Berlin martyrs himself in season one but returns in flashback in season two, this time as pure object of desire rather than last season’s exemplar of machismo and sadism. In terms of the character’s 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 Guantánamo—used stunningly to call attention to women’s issues in the Cuban film Lucía. As he solos, we cut to the working-class woman Nairobi inside the bank vault dangling the gold ingots as earrings.

BlacKkKlansman

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. There is Scorsese’s pool shark running the table to “Werewolves of London” in The Color of Money. More presciently,  the moment recalls 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 appropriating the gold is the equal to both.

Alex Pina, Netflix, and Spanish television 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 what is always the heart of the series, the Professor and the gang’s duel with the repressive apparatus of the state, but on internal enemies and foes within the bank. The stretching out results in the necessity, more commercial than story-driven, for a season three, but also leaves audiences feeling that the promise of the second season was not fulfilled in that season.

Alex Pina’s next project for Netflix was the just-released White Lines, an Ibiza sexfest that recalls 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 before allows the series to frequently flashback to this golden era.

The show, though, has little to recommend it. It’s been called a “trashy beach novel.” What a falling off this is from the heights of the pre-Netflix Casa de Papel season one. It seems more like a knockoff to fulfill a contractual obligation than a series—what in Britain after World War II used to be called “quota quickies,” down and dirty films Hollywood had to produce in Britain in order to then import their “A” material. Those films, however, did boast 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.

Sex, what else? in Ibiza

Pina’s next project, before Netflix season five 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, and Madrid is one of the global epicenters of the outbreak. 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 is, is this charity a pure gift, or is it also a way of Netflix further insinuating itself into the local film and television landscape at a time when Spanish films and series might 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. Thus, the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis may become one more example of digital disaster capitalism where global misery furthers American corporate appropriation and dominance.


CONTRIBUTOR

Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is a television, film, and culture critic. His criticism appears in Morning Star, People’s World; Culture Matters, Crime Fiction Lover, and is on the Pacifica Network in the U.S., and on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris. His books include Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and his novel Left of Eden about the Hollywood Blacklist. Broe taught in the Master’s Program in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris.

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