Spanish hit series “La Casa de Papel” captures Europe’s mood a decade after the crash

A decade after the financial crash, a show about robbers attacking capitalism at source is captivating audiences.

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By the fourth plot twist, my boyfriend shook his head. “This is ridiculous. Why does everyone love this show?”

“La Casa de Papel” (“Money Heist” in English, available on Netflix) is the story of the world’s biggest heist, orchestrated by a crime genius to the smallest detail: to break into Spain’s Royal Mint to print their own money, about €2.4bn. It’s utterly ridiculous. And we couldn’t stop watching.

The eight heist men and women, dressed in flashy red overalls and wearing Salvador Dalí masks, are given code names inspired by cities: Tokyo, Rio, Berlin, Moscow, Nairobi, Oslo, Helsinki and Denver. From the outside, the heist’s mastermind, El Profesor, will ensure the operation runs smoothly and that they stay inside as long as possible, to print as much as they can, without hurting the police or any of the 67 hostages.

Created by Álex Pina, the series originally aired on Spanish TV in 2017 and was added to the Netflix catalogue in December 2017. It’s available on the platform both in English, in a dubbed version, and in Spanish with subtitles.

In April, just over four months after being added on the platform, “La Casa de Papel” became the most-watched series in a foreign language on Netflix ever. In France, it’s such a phenomenon that Paris’ Musée Grévin has added statues of the heist men to its wax museum. The fandom took a darker turn this August in Nantes, when two real heist men attacked a hotel, then a shop, while wearing the series’ memorable costume of Dalí masks and red overalls.

My boyfriend and I had heard the hype about the show, but when we first started watching it, we could not fathom why. It’s full of plot holes, clichéd slow-motions, corny love stories and gratuitous sex scenes; the music is pompous, the voice-over irritating, and it’s terribly edited (although this might be Netflix’s fault, as it stretched the first season’s original nine episodes into 13). Some actors are so bad (looking at you, Tokyo) that we could but hope that it was due to poor direction. So, why? Why?!

It started to make sense once the heist operators sang “Bella Ciao”. Because El Profesor, the mastermind, wants the operation to send a message to the people, he teaches his gang this popular Italian song, which was sung by the partisans fighting fascism during World War II, and has become a revolutionary anthem. Throughout the show, the song carries their hopes of resistance – it’s not about the money as much as it is about what money represents. Because the gang are printing their own notes, they aren't technically stealing from anyone – a brilliant trick which they hope will gain them public support. They don't think themselves as bad guys, but as revolutionaries against an injust system.

The first part of the show, halfway through the story of the heist, ends on a montage of real footage of money and what it represents – shots of bills being printed, factory workers sorting coins, crowds on Wall Street and in banks, stocks increasing then decreasing on graphs, the screaming front pages of newspapers. Notes fly in the air, jobless people march in the streets, and credits roll while “Bella Ciao” plays. For all its silliness, “La Casa de Papel” hit the jackpot by offering a not-so-subtle but striking allegory of revolt against capitalism.

It is telling that, a decade after the financial crash, a show about a heist, orchestrated by modern-day Robin Hoods and targeting directly the creation of currency, is a runaway success. The series is peppered with references to Spain’s economic and social climate since 2008, from the gang’s masks to their outspoken admiration for to the Indignados movement and the protests against austerity on Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in 2011. Even after being taken prisoner, the Royal Mint’s CEO threatens his fellow hostage, an employee, by promising to fire him as soon as the heist ends. “I know you have two grown-up daughters who have been jobless for seven years”, he tells him.

Because the show is 40 per cent thriller and 60 per cent telenovela, a speech is needed to make this purpose crystal clear. “In 2011, the European Central Bank made €171bn out of nowhere. Just like we’re doing. Only bigger,” El Profesor tells the police to justify his actions. “Do you know where all that money went? To the banks. Directly from the factory to the pockets of the rich. Did anyone call the European Central Bank a thief? No. ‘Liquidity injections,’ they called it. I’m making a liquidity injection, but not for the banks. I’m making it here, in the real economy.”

Le Monde called the show “an allegory of rebellion” and “a hymn to courage and to the necessity to think for oneself”. In Turkey, where the series is also very successful, it is regarded as “propaganda” by the establishment: a journalist from the state channel AkitTV tweeted that it could lead the youth to “terrorism” and to revolutionary moments like the Gezi youth revolt in 2013, while the former mayor of Ankara sees in it “a dangerous symbol of rebellion”.

“La Casa de Papel” isn’t a great show. It’s not even remotely a good show. But it has resonated with international audiences because of the social and economic tensions it depicts, and because of the utopian escape it offers them. In 2018, Robin Hoods don’t steal to the rich to give to the poor. They hack capitalism at its very source.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.