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Documentary Review | Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard

Riveting story of a sprawling money-laundering operation under the guise of a legit business.

Rating: 4 out of 4.
Run Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 2022
Platform: Netflix
Directed by: James Erskine
Bringing Down Wirecard

Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard ticks all the right boxes for a fascinating documentary. It informs, entertains, and educates.

An honest confession to start with though. I wasn’t remotely aware of the Wirecard saga until I watched this documentary. Maybe, that’s why I enjoyed it so much more.

Germany’s main bailiwick has always been manufacturing. Companies such as BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, Bosch, Siemens, etc. tower well above their international counterparts even today.

In the noughties, Wirecard – an electronic payments processing company – emerged on the scene and quickly became a runaway success. For the first time, a fintech startup from Germany was garnering the spotlight.

Such was its meteoric rise that at one point, it was the most valuable financial company listed on the DAX blue-chip stock index. The wooden-face CEO of Wirecard, Markus Braun, became Germany’s tech Czar.

However, before it could conquer the world, Wirecard foundered like a ship hit by a torpedo. The proverbial torpedo, in this case, came from the British newspaper Financial Times and in particular, from its plucky journalist, Dan McCrum.

Dan McCrum in the Netflix documentary - Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard
Dan McCrum in Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard (Image source:

McCrum, on whose book this documentary is based, started tracking Wirecard in 2014. For a long time, there were rumors about Wirecard’s shadowy business model and financial malpractices. A chunk of Wirecard’s business was coming from risk-fraught domains such as gambling, pornography, and dubious healthcare products.

“If you are planning a fraud, there are a couple of things that you can learn from what Wirecard did. So one of the first things is to wrap yourself in complexity”.

Dan McCrum

The documentary later reveals that more than 50% of Wirecard’s global sales came from only three partners based in Asia. An alarming red flag that went under the radar of German authorities.

McCrum and his Singapore-based colleague Stefania Palma went hot on the trail of Wirecard. Starting in 2015, a series of stinging articles, titled House of Wirecard, appeared in FT. Wirecard launched an offensive of its own – tapping the phones of journos, paying bribes to influential people, concocting maligning stories, and pulling hidden skeletons out of the closet.

The ultimate blow came in 2019 though when McCrum, in one of his stories, reported that an Asia-based senior finance executive at Wirecard was falsifying accounts and round-tripping money from its Asia operations.

In the last throw of the dice, Markus Braun tried to take over Deutsche Bank. Had he been successful, he would have swept the financial impropriety at Wirecard under the Deutsche Bank rug.

However, before that could happen, EY, the auditors of Wirecard claimed publicly that they couldn’t trace the $1.9 billion that Wirecard had claimed was stashed away in two partner banks in the Philippines. Funnily, those banks denied having any business relations with Wirecard.

Sensing that end was near, Jan Marsalek, the shadowy COO of Wirecard, absconded from Germany, never to be seen again. A few days later, in June 2020, Braun lost his job. He now faces trial on charges of fraudulence. During his reign of almost two decades, he padded the company’s books with fictitious profits of $1.9 billion. Money that never existed in the first place.

The Aschheim-based company also became the first DAX-listed company to go bust hemorrhaging investors of over 20 billion euros.

Skandal! works like a taut, fast-paced Hollywood thriller. The action takes place in several locations – Berlin, London, Singapore, New York, Cannes, Munich, Manila, Vienna, and Libya. The production aesthetics and the sound design add to the immersive atmosphere.

James Erskine’s superb depiction of the cat-and-mouse chase showcases his mastery of the craft and keeps you glued to the screen. Any documentarian can tell a story. But a filmmaker who uses the story as a springboard for bigger, messier questions, creates something far beyond entertainment and education. This is precisely where Erskine succeeds with Skandal!

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