It takes just seconds for hardcore Wirecard junkies to spot the greatest fake of The Great Fake, a new docudrama into Germany’s greatest postwar business fraud.
Viewers are thrown right into the heart of the action as cross-cut scenes introduce Jan Marsalek, the firm's missing-in-action senior manager, as an arrogant playboy and Markus Braun as its bespectacled, stilted chief executive. While Marsalek, Wirecard's chief operating officer, downs champagne, cavorts with prostitutes and confesses his devious deeds to the viewers, Braun, in a briefing, bores to death a group of journalists with empty corporate language.
Watching him closely is a stern journalist who will pierce the firm’s financial smokescreen. In reality that was Financial Times journalist Dan McCrum.
But with that journalist and his story signed up elsewhere, his character in The Great Fake is a woman – and a German. That will be a dramatic liberty too far for some Wirecard junkies.
For the five years that McCrum published regular stories suggesting – then insisting – that Germany’s dotcom payments giant was a fraud, his German journalist colleagues largely looked the other way.
In some cases, egged on by Wirecard double bluffs and an incompetent financial regulator, some German journalists ran stories repeating baseless claims that McCrum and others were the villains of the piece, blackmailing Wirecard and manipulating markets.
Despite a snappy script and some amusing performances, there are many other gaps in The Great Fake, a hastily-made German production.
It doesn't look too closely at the firm's ties to Berlin, and how Wirecard exploited its reputation as a digital unicorn to secure political influence. Nor, given the ongoing criminal investigation, can it actually get too close to the details that make the Wirecard drama so compelling.
As Germany’s parliament continues its investigation of the Wirecard meltdown, and investigators still hunt worldwide for Marsalek, the television drama highlights the general insanity of the entire story – but doesn’t ask too many awkward questions about the curious patriotism – some would say parochialism – that allowed Wirecard trade with an imaginary €2 billion on its books.
Last week Felix Hufeld, the ousted BaFin chief executive, conceded his Frankfurt authority had left “loopholes” in its approach to Wirecard, in particular around the time it imposed a short-selling ban. But he insisted his officials did not view the Munich-based firm as a victim of a plot.
His claims to incredulous MPs that his regulator was tough and respected worldwide were too much for the Financial Times. Last week it dismissed BaFin as a “toothless lapdog whose incompetence resonates beyond Germany’s borders”.
For Franz Hartwig, who plays Marsalek in The Great Fake, this was a chance of a lifetime to play a man who embraced the opportunities of high finance while simultaneously denying the realities of simple book-keeping.
“I wanted to show Jan Marsalek not just as a machine who can fool people, but also as a person,” said Hartwig of the missing manager. “What interests me is someone who asks himself eventually if, with his actions, he might not be tipping many people into disaster.”
The first reviews of The Great Fake have not been kind, but there’s always hope for Dan McCrum’s own version of the tale, coming soon to a screen near you.