Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard: a must-see documentary
What was supposed to be Germany’s home-grown tech company to rival Apple or Google turned into a journalistic investigation into elaborate fraud, which is chronicled in the Netflix documentary Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard.
A story of shady dealings, shell companies, hired thugs, buggings and secret service connections, the documentary released earlier this year balances a pace of journalistic investigation with a series of startling discoveries that gradually revealed the Wirecard scandal.
Financial Times journalist, Dan McCrum, takes centre stage. His interest in Wirecard dates back to the mid-2010s when the upstart financial tech company found itself specialising in discreet online payments - covering the tracks for those partaking in online gambling or paid pornography. McCrum, like some short sellers in the UK and US, smelled something fishy: the revenue numbers never quite added up, and so McCrum and a handful of investors started their deep-dive into Wirecard, the German answer to the rise of big tech.
Skandal! is unique in its depiction of a new era of corporate espionage. It never drags on despite ostensibly being a documentary about the finance world. More reminiscent of a spy thriller than a piece of journalism, Skandal! is a must-see documentary for those in the finance world and is riveting to laymen too.
For those who have seen The Big Short, short selling should be a familiar term – that is, borrowing securities and selling them in the hope of buying them at a lower price in the future. Essentially a bet against a stock, short sellers bank on a drop in share prices as opposed to a rise. But when short sellers like UK-based Matt Earl went looking for the next big short, he noticed that something about Wirecard’s model reeked of fraudulence.
Why was a huge German fintech funnelling billions of dollars through a shell company based out of someone’s home in Consett, a depressed mining town in County Durham, England?
This first inkling brings Earl and McCrum together over their shared interest in Wirecard. The documentary quickly takes on an investigative pace, never overly eager to give away just where this first thread leads. McCrum’s investigation, as visualised by the documentary’s dramatic recreations, quickly becomes a matter of conspiratorially pinning red yarn on cork boards.
"It’s exactly like Ozark," McCrum states, and when his first investigations are posted by the Financial Times, Wirecard and the German government denounce him as a speculator interested in bringing the company’s stock prices down in order to make a quick buck of short selling. He is eventually hit with criminal charges by the German financial regulator, highlighting how Wirecard was seen as the shining beacon of emergent German tech.
Wirecard founder, Markus Braun, denounced all claims of fraud as the work of short sellers seeking to bring the company down. What follows these initial blows in the row between FT and Wirecard is more akin to a Cold War spy thriller than a news story.
Journalists working at the Financial Times start noticing they are being followed across London. They say they spotted a man with a long-range microphone, which they believe is an attempt to listen in on newsroom conversations that might pertain to Wirecard. FT staff said at one point they had counted at least 28 separate private investigators tailing them. Short sellers betting against the company claim to be harassed by thugs who intimidate them into ceasing all short selling of Wirecard stock.
In one of the most striking sequences of Skandal!, McCrum gets a hold of a trove of information about Wirecard on a hard drive. The Financial Times hands him a laptop which has had its modem ripped out, making it unhackable, and it is kept in a huge safe. Every day, McCrum took the modified laptop from the safe and worked in a room deep within the FT’s building - which he called ‘the bunker’.
The paranoia permeating throughout Skandal! is tangible and is reminiscent of old post-war spy stories, when Soviet agents would walk the streets of London with poison-tipped umbrellas.
Wirecard collapsed following Dan McCrum and the Financial Times’ investigation. Unlike Braun, Chief Operating Officer (COO) Jan Marsalek was never brought before the courts.