More than five decades after the incident, Borgward’s dramatic bankruptcy is retold in dramatic fashion.
Carl F W Borgward is driving his wife in a Hansa 2400 saloon along a deserted stretch of b-road when he hears that the end for the company bearing his name has come over the radio. He immediately stops the car, gets outside and gasps for air, staring into nothingness.
This is the not particularly subtle introduction into Die Affäre Borgward (The Borgward Affair), a tv movie about the downfall of Germany’s then fourth largest car maker, which was first broadcasted in January 2019. The somewhat fragmented narrative is divided into story strands about Carl Borgward himself, Borgward’s Insolvenzverwalter, Dr Johannes Semler, the goings-on inside Bremen’s senate and, because no German tv movie can do without a blue-collar angle, a young entrepreneur who had the bad luck of opening a Borgward dealership just prior to the bankruptcy.
Carl Borgward’s story benefits from the casting of Thomas Thieme as the self-made industrialist, as the actor isn’t prone to the kind of grandstanding and overacting such a role of historical significance all too often entails. Unfortunately, he isn’t particularly well-served by a script (courtesy of the director, Marcus O Rosenmüller) that paints him in rather broad strokes. So the Borgward depicted in the movie is a – perhaps even visionary – tinkerer and stylist who, regrettably, is overly stubborn and reliant on his own instincts.
The regular put-downs of his chief accountant and arrogance towards the senate of the city state of Bremen highlight a pigheadedness that, of course, would come to haunt Borgward soon enough. On top of that, his own staff keep issues such as the Arabella’s leaking footwells from him, although the exact reasons behind this remain somewhat murky. Once his company is taken away from him, Borgward turns into a minor character, who has to undergo the odd indignity (such as having to return his Hansa company car) and never manages to cope with the loss of his company.
By this point, Dr Johannes Semler turns into a somewhat unexpected main character. Played with entertaining, but not dramatically exaggerated sleazy arrogance by Bruno Eyron, the senate-appointed Insolvenzverwalter’s first moves upon his arrival at Sebaldsbrück are the appointment of a slinky secretary and the ordering of business cards with steel engraving.
In Germany, the Insolvenzverwalter is no mere liquidator, but supposed to keep as many salvageable parts of the insolvent business intact. In that context, Semler’s simultaneous membership of the board of BMW raised more than a few eyebrows back in the day and baffles from today’s perspective.
According to Rosenmüller’s script, vain Semler considered himself some economic mastermind, whose main objective was to serve Borgward on a golden plate to BMW’s majority shareholder, Herbert Quandt (who is only occasionally, and very briefly shown as a shadowy, taciturn, Machiavellian figure inside a dark, wood-panelled office).
In the meantime, Semler runs what is left of Borgward into the ground and sends some of his core staff to help out at Munich Milbertshofen. When Quandt eventually refused to take over the carcass of Borgward, Semler is left stumped.
The inside view on the Bremen senate’s actions appears to be the most far-fetched of the historical plot threads. A combination of antipathy towards Carl Borgward’s brash behaviour, personal grudges of certain social democrat politicians due to Borgward’s Nazi sympathising during the Third Reich and sheer incompetence is cited as the motivation behind the senate’s inept course of action, which would prove to have catastrophic consequences for the then flourishing federal state. The role and origins of a devastating article published by then leading German news magazine, Der Spiegel, are also unsatisfyingly explained.
However, these liberties and possible inaccuracies do not inhibit the narrative remotely as much as the gratuitous subplot concerning the young car salesman who opens a Borgward dealership just at the wrong moment and eventually ends up unable to take his wife on the promised mediterranean holiday – with her instead having to mark an ad offering employment as a supermarket cashier at Aldi’s in the newspaper by the end instead. Because, of course, it’s the common people that always suffer the most, as no German tv viewer can ever be trusted to deduce him- or herself.
The stilted, formulaic character of Die Borgward Affäre extends into the production style as well. Everything is far too squeaky clean, too unused; there is no proper texture, no subliminal feeling that Nachkriegsdeutschland, in all its smokey, bright, petty bourgeois hustle, exists beyond the camera’s frame – despite old newsreel snippets being shown on regular intervals.
A late scene depicting Carl Borgward’s real-life daughter, now of mature age, standing opposite the former factory entrance and reading a fierce denouncement of the Bremen senate, which includes accusations of conspiracy against her father (but little in the way of admissions of mistakes of his own making) also fails to inject proper passion into the pedestrian proceedings.
In that sense, Marcus O Rosenmüller’s take on the end of Borgward is a very German endeavour, in that it’s afraid of complexities that might challenge the viewer. Even in its attempt to paint Carl Borgward a failed, flawed hero, it doesn’t possess enough belief in its own convictions to make him the true centre of the narrative.
The end result thus resembles what Carl Borgward, for all his shortcomings, was unlikely to have represented: utter mediocrity.
Die Affäre Borgward can be viewed online (depending on one’s country IP)