Sunday, June 06, 2010

BIFF ’10: The Welfare Worker

Ponzi schemes are not just for high-rolling financiers. As we know from recent headlines, self-appointed community organizers are just as likely to be involved in financial shenanigans. Such appears to be the case in Switzerland as well in Lutz Konermann’s The Welfare Worker (trailer here), which opened the 2010 Brooklyn International Film Festival Saturday night.

Hans-Peter Stalder enjoys social work. Unfortunately, he amassed quite a bit of debt keeping a mistress on the side. People are starting to talk, even his clients. To save face, Stalder tells a little white lie, claiming he has an in with a powerful economist, allowing him access to exclusive investments guaranteed to generate ridiculous rates of return. Rather than scoffing at his incredible tale, people start approaching him to invest with the mysterious “Dr. Moser” on their behalf. It all works just fine as long as there is a steady flow of new money into the pyramid scheme.

Even after being exposed, escaping from prison, and being convicted in absentia, Stalder still has a queue of fresh suckers trying to get in on his bogus investments. Like George C. Scott’s Flim-Flam Man, Welfare argues you cannot cheat an honest man. However, Konermann’s film is lighter in tone, closer to Catch Me If You Can, but perhaps a bit more sentimental. Notwithstanding all his mistresses and swindling, Welfare lets its anti-hero off the hook, presenting him as just an old softy, who only wants to make other people happy. A real-life Stalder would deserve a far worse fate, but as a roguish protagonist in a relatively diverting comedy, he gets a pass.

As a slovenly ladies man with suspiciously wig-looking hair, Roeland Wiesnekker is suitably likable as Stalder. Likewise, Katharina Wackernagel brings genuine warmth (if not believability) as Orsina Rocchi, the great Italian love of his life. However, no one really stands out amidst the rest of the large supporting cast, despite the long parade of marks and women marching in and out of Stalder’s life.

Konermann keeps the proceedings pleasant and mostly upbeat, deftly navigating the flashbacks-within-flashbacks narrative structure. No, crime does not pay in Welfare, but it probably gets off easy, which is fine, since it hardly positions itself as a great morality play. Not exactly a film of great depth, Welfare is well-paced and easily accessible with the potential to do quite well on the art-house circuit should a boutique distributor pick it up. It screens again as part of this year’s Brooklyn International Film Festival on Tuesday (6/8) at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.