The Great Spain Robbery: Theft, Rebellion and Epic Theatre in Antena 3’s "La casa de papel"
Imagine a perfect heist: no one is endangered, no one is stolen from, and yet the robbers walk away with close to a billion euros. Such is the plan put forward by the mysterious ‘Professor’ (Sergio Marquina) of Antena 3’s television series, La casa de papel, known in English as Money Heist. Set in modern Spain, Money Heist follows a band of thieves pulled together by the Professor to pull off a heist so meticulous, that they must take five months just to “learn” the Professor’s plan. But there is more to this heist than greed or desperation. In Money Heist, we see reflections of what philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the “simulated robbery” in his treatise, Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard suggests that in fact, a simulated heist (where, for example, nothing is stolen, and the guns are fake) is a greater threat to power than a “real” one, because it declares that, “...law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation.”
A critique of underlying norms of law and order might seem far removed from a Netflix-purchased TV series; yet Money Heist takes reality, performance, class struggle and heroism as its central themes. In the midst of the heist, police inspector Raquel Murillo asks the Professor how long he studied the state’s methods of policing, to which he responds “to be honest - half my life” (S1E06 0:27:14). This study is what he shares with the rest of the heist team, and its primary lesson is the importance of performance, even theatricality, in the execution of a revolutionary act. Tokio, member of the team and narrator, tells that, “the life of the Professor revolved around a single idea: Resistance” (S1E13 49:02). It is his steadfastness in his beliefs that begins to change the heist team, helping them understand how to resist power by relearning community and solidarity.
Bertolt Brecht’s concept of “epic theatre” helps parse the difference between ordinary robbery and a deeper destabilization of authority. Brecht posits a type of political theatre that seeks to generate an active, thinking audience, rather than one whose “relations are those of a lot of sleepers.” For Brecht, there are identifiable ways to produce social engagement in an audience, and Money Heist employs many of them, both in the structure of the series, and in the plot itself. Particularly, the heist team’s use of performance as a tool for deception throughout the story allows an “alienation effect” between the audience and characters, such that the audience members follow what is happening, but do not necessarily identify themselves with the actions and choices of the characters.
The main manifestation of this performative (and thus, alienating) focus in Money Heist is the Professor’s plan, which in many ways resembles a script or screenplay, and the way it frames the story. Throughout, the robbers have a series of audiences — from the police, to the hostages, and even the Spanish public — for whom they perform according to that meticulously rehearsed plan. At times, we as viewers are aware of the heist team’s deceptive intent, as happens when Berlín, arguably the cruelest of the heist team, is chosen to speak for the heist team to the press. Here we see the blending of statement and performance, as he responds to the police’s false claim that he was a sex trafficker. He also pleads directly to the Spanish people, revealing the fact that a group of hostages killed a robber in an escape attempt, and that Berlín himself is terminally ill, culminating with an emotional challenge to the police to reveal the ostensible records of his false crimes (S1E04 0:45:10). Throughout he emphasizes that the robbers are “like anyone else,” and want to “leave something for [their] famil[ies]” (S1E04 0:46:40). As Baudrillard notes about simulated acts, “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements…” and this dynamic is what Berlín plays upon. The performance put on by the heist team, dipping in and out of the real, posits a set of norms that undermines the state enforced bourgeois moral and legal order, even as it appeals to popular visions of “normalcy” and value.
Indeed, the Professor’s plan defines not just the in-universe perception of the heist team, but possible audience readings of it as well. The plan itself comes from the Professor’s father, who told it to his son as a story by his sickbed while he robbed banks to pay for the treatment. Consequently, the plan becomes not only the practical, but ethical, even sentimental core of the story. And yet as a core it is an ambiguous one; in Brechtian terms, it does not assume its viewers’ buy-in, but makes it a central question of the series. Within the story, the heist team presents a performance to the Spanish nation that exposes the practical ideology of a capitalist state as regards the value of human life, order and peace. The viewers see this performance, but also the tensions and conflict “behind the scenes.” Brecht describes how this perspective “alienates” the audience and “allows us to recognize its [the story’s] subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.” What the audience can recognize are the stakes, and the risks. The complexity of the plan emphasizes the danger that individual flaws pose to its execution, and to the cohesion of the team overall. Immature love affairs, rash bouts of anger, as well as sadistic abuses of power all threaten the plan, and by extension, the lives of the heist team.
The team member’s personal faults are difficult to square with the urge to root for their success. This is in part because these protagonists do not fall into the anti-hero archetype, where personal flaws bring success (as they do for Marvel’s The Punisher, or DC’s Batman). Neither are they tragic heroes: good people doomed to failure because they are flawed. The protagonists of Money Heist commit despicable, rather than sentimental or redemptive transgressions, especially in their sex lives. The Professor, Denver and Berlín all have sex that is power disbalanced, happening under false pretenses; Berlín commits emotional abuse and violent rape against a hostage. Narratively, this is linked to his terminal illness, suggesting it as a kind of narrative justice. Moreover, his abuse ignites a plot to kill him after the heist, which only fails because he is killed by police in the final escape. Berlín’s case highlights a broader trend of using death/life or success/failure as a moral indicator. To successfully execute the heist, the team has to fundamentally shift their understandings of themselves, again reflecting Brecht, who writes that “the smallest social unit is not the single person but two people.” Berlín, seemingly, is unable to rethink his individualistic urges, and so does not survive. Every character’s faults and vices threaten them, but overall, the team’s ability to remain focused and united allows them to overcome individual failings, and succeed in their struggle against power. In fact, much of Money Heist’s drama comes from the heated discussions and group problem solving needed when dealing with characters’ transgressions.
Money Heist places its characters and their harmful behaviors against a backdrop of violent confrontation between working people and the state, kindling in the audience what Brecht describes as “mentally switching off the motive forces of our society or by substituting others for them…thus allowing the real motive forces to be shorn of their naturalness and become capable of manipulation.” Money Heist depicts a victory against power by flawed, hurt and hurtful people. The heist team’s immaturity and selfishness often makes them hard to relate to, but it also suggests that heroism or perfection is not a precondition to revolutionary success. Indeed, the lack of empathy generated in the audience creates space to think about how fights against bourgeois power play out in our world, imperfections and all. Perhaps this is as much a solution to individual faults and flaws as can be hoped for: to crack open in each other that which the present order locks away.
Featured Image: Jan Steen, The Bad Company. CC BY 3.0. Courtesy of The Louvre