(Film) Review: The Borgward Affair

More than five decades after the incident, Borgward’s dramatic bankruptcy is retold in dramatic fashion. 

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photo (c) Nordmedia

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.

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Thomas Thieme as Carl Borgward, photo (c) TV Spielfilm

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.

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Bruno Eyron as Dr Johannes Semler, photo (c) NDR

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.

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The politicians, photo (c) TV Spielfilm

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.

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The common people, photo (c) Instagram

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)

The author of this piece is a film enthusiast who also runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 
 www.auto-didakt.com

Author: Christopher Butt

Auto-Didakt

7 thoughts on “(Film) Review: The Borgward Affair”

  1. The ex-Borgward factory in Bremen-Sebaldsbrück (one “e” only, please) is now Mercedes’ second biggest production site with 12,500 people having produced 420,000 cars in 2018.
    Borgward as a brand may be dead, but as an employer and economical force it is well alive.

    I’m old enough to have been an schoolboy at the time Borgward went bankrupt and had to hand his company over to the Senate of Bremen to avoid formal bankruptcy. There were an unlimited number of conspiracy theories, mostly around Borward owners of which there were several among the dads of my schoolmates.
    The simple fact that CFW had no eye for the financial side of his business and produced far too many different models under a myriad of different names (Borgward, Hansa, Lloyd, Goliath) was largely ignored. Post war Germany’s car market (and economy as a whole) changed fundamentally at that time with a general shift from motorcycles to cars as primary means of transport and some manufacturers simply had to go (look at the number of motorcycle or truck manufacturers that closed their doors during that time- Horex, Zündapp, DKW, Hercules, NSU and Krupp, Faun, Kaelble, Büssing, Henschel, Hanomag, Tempo Vidal…) and in view of the amazing resurrection of BMW it was Borgward that had to bite the dust.

    1. Thanks for the correction. If my Bremerhaven-born grandfather (may he rest in peace) had spotted this glaring error, it might have hurt him even more than his grandson moving to Hamburg, of all places.

      Despite your correct allusions to Sebaldsbrück (one E!) having been home of the C-class and SL models for decades, more than one historian claims that the ‘Borgward Pleite’ started the downfall of the city and state of Bremen, which was at the forefront of the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ before the incident, and has been on a gradual (and eventually dramatic) economic downhill slope since. Today, Bremen remains among the poorest of German federal states.

  2. Elequant and thought provoking, as always . I attempted to watch the film to gain the feel and mood expressed in your piece: alas, the only subtitles are in German and my grip on that language is lessser than a half interested schoolboy with his nose in a car magazine. But it certainly looks a good viewing for cars and locations

  3. A sombre film, although I hardly expected the story to be played for laughs – the nearest we got was the “Borgward macht Weiter” comment in the Milbertshofen canteen. Bremen looked splendid, likewise the cars and LCVs, some of which I know. I’m sure that the people they own will enjoy their new film-star status.

    There were rather too many anachronisms and solecisms. Frau Zech’s application to work in Aldi may have been premature – the Albrecht brothers didn’t introduce the name till 1962. Herr Zech, on the other hand, would have had a supply of – hopefully sorted – Arabellas from the Lloyd Werke in Neustadt until well into 1963.

    The Weser-Kurier has not shied from Bremen’s unfortunate record of Free and Hanseatic business failures:

    https://www.weser-kurier.de/bremen/bremen-fotos_galerie,-bremens-historische-pleiten-_mediagalid,38372.html

    Probably the same could be said of most major industrial cities, as manufacturing consolidates into multi-national mega-conglomerates and the activity of production moves to low wage territories. At least Bremen’s industrial corpses don’t lie as still as some. As well as Chinese Ghoul Borgward, there’s Turkish Ghoul Nordmende…

    1. Bremen was once notorious for being a capital of the German arms industry and home to shipyards like AG Weser or Deschimag, culminating in the monstrosity of “Bunker Valentin”, a very German combination of engineering genius and inhuman thoroughness just like the “Walther U-Boot Typ XXI” that was meant to be produced there.
      Later they had MBB Erno produce military espionage satellites and they still have a site repairing Leopard tanks very close to the Mercedes facilities.

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