Netflix frequently is home for true-crime-slash-get-a-load-of-THIS-character documentaries like Big Mack: Gangsters and Gold (now on Netflix), a German-language examination of Donald Stellwag, a one-out-of-one type person who committed his share of crimes – and may still be – but was convicted for a totally different crime he DIDN’T commit. The film functions as an introduction to Stellwag for any non-Germans out there who didn’t get to see him run the German talk-show circuit in the wake of his wrongful conviction, prison stay and subsequent exoneration, although the fascinating thing is, he maybe probably should be in prison anyway?
BIG MACK: GANGSTERS AND GOLD: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: During Big Mack’s opening montage, a commentator delivers a golden-oldie of a cliche: “Sometimes, life is crazier than Hollywood movies.” This! This is how documentaries try to hook you, with the promise of a stranger-than-fiction story – and we’ve heard it enough times that we should question its effectiveness. But sally on we must, through a film that cheats a bit in the first half so it can drop some whoppers in the second half; it does this by foregoing linear narrative for one that time-hops, and therefore manipulates us. And that’s why it follows the teaser opening with a robbery, seen in reenactment, during which a tall, heavyset man walks into a Nuremberg bank, points a pistol at the teller, walks out with a bag of cash and speeds off in a cab, its driver at gunpoint. That was 1991.
Stellwag was about 34 years old when the robbery occurred, and he was soon arrested, accused of the crime. We meet him in the present day, interviewed lying in bed, his obesity and related health issues rendering him nearly immobile. He talks about the ordeal, how he was identified in a lineup of other perps who looked nothing like him, how he had many people offering corroborating alibis, how an “expert” was called in to positively identify him in a blurry photo taken from surveillance-camera footage – an “expert” who insisted the shape of Stellwag’s ear matched that of the man in the photo and he therefore should have his ass and his ears and all his other attached body parts convicted. Yes, the shape of his ear. And he got a nine-year prison sentence, during which his refusal to admit guilt resulted in his being placed in isolation. He tells us how awful it was, being in his cell for 23 hours a day, all alone, with no one to talk to. This poor guy, he sure got railroaded, didn’t he?
After Stellwag did his time and was released in 2001, the real bank robber confessed, and our guy was publicly exonerated. He got a piddling monetary compensation from the government, won 150k Euros in a civil suit against the Ear Guy for his bullshit testimony, and made the rounds on German talk shows for several years, because the media couldn’t get enough of his story. He made good money wearing shirts and hats advertising breweries on national television, and he deserved it because life dealt him a lousy hand, right? Not only was Stellwag a victim of a sham trial, but he also was orphaned as a child, a self-proclaimed pariah who was the bastard son of an American soldier. And as an adult, he suffered from brain tumors that contributed to his obesity. Sad, isn’t it?
And it gets worse! In 2009, three gangsters, one of them a somewhat popular Kurdish rapper known as Xatar, masqueraded as cops and hijacked a van full of €1.8 million worth of gold jewelry. They got caught, and guess who they fingered as the guy who informed them about the loot transport? Right. Stellwag, the Upstanding Citizen and Victim of Grave Injustice. I can read your thoughts: What?!? And at this point, we finally get a deeper probe into Stellwag’s character. His lawyer describes him as “an embellisher” and a “salesman,” which translates to “bullshit artist.” And that’s the least of his credibility issues. I won’t get into them because, you know, NO SPOILERS and all that. But suffice to say, this guy is what you might call a Real Piece of Work.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Big Mack is in the same ballpark of notoriety-inspired pseudo-bios like Running with the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee and Fugitive: The Curious Case of Carlos Ghosn – and Stellwag’s physical struggles bring The Whale to mind, too.
Performance Worth Watching: Stellwag is a reasonably fascinating individual, a slippery type whose autobiography, if he ever were to write one, would likely be a highly entertaining massive load of horseshit. But the most intriguing “performance” in this doc comes from directors Fabienne Hurst, Andreas Spinrath and Facundo Scalerandi, who do some serious gymnastic twists and backbends while piecing together this narrative, with the intent of manipulating the ooze out of us viewers.
Memorable Dialogue: One of Stellwa’s former schoolmates: “I mean, he is a sly dog, right?”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Show of hands: Who out there likes being effed with? By a documentary that withholds a lot of information for the first half and opens fire in the second, in an attempt to give us some sort of emotional whiplash? That kind of thing (affects Peter Griffin voice) really grinds my gears. It’s what separates docs with journalistic intent from sensationalist fodder. And Big Mack is the latter. It’s stuffed with cornball reenactments, and structures its story for maximum dramatic impact. Like its subject, it plays dirty, and it knows it.
But – and this is a big But – as long as we’re aware that we’re being manipulated, what’s the big deal? Nobody is going to reasonably watch a movie subtitled Gangsters and Gold without expecting the sob-story of its first 40 minutes to be the only note it plays. The directors throw in teensy hints as it builds the narrative to the “revelation” that Stellwag is a shady individual feeding us three-dollar-bill testimony, and they eventually bring in outside voices to contradict his claims that his childhood was terrible and his prison stay was a grueling psychological ordeal. And it soon comes to light that he probably deserved to be in prison, just not for the specific crime of bank robbery.
The big question here is why Stellwag chooses to participate in the documentary. The film paints him as an attention whore of sorts, exploiting his wrongful conviction for money and TV fame. Maybe he participates because he’s a somewhat pathetic sight, ailing and immobile, unable to exist with any independence, his mouth full of rotten teeth – a sight that might soften the fact that he’s almost certainly a career criminal, or, in the words of Xantar, “a dyed-in-the-wool gangster.” Read between the lines, and we realize Stellwag’s a fascinating individual who’s trying to control the narrative at all times; in his mind, his “business” dealings are justified because of his unwarranted imprisonment, and the idea that his many physical ailments may do him in soon, so he has nothing to lose. Look even deeper, and you see a man with something of a death wish it seems, a thematic thread that Big Mack is too lightweight to fully address. The film does eventually drop one of the big reasons he talks openly but guardedly about the ins and outs of his “work,” and it doesn’t really capitalize on the drama of the reveal. Those final scenes will make you shake your head in disbelief, which seems to be the film’s primary goal, for better or worse.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Stellweg’s wild life undoubtedly deserves to be the subject of a documentary, but Big Mack: Gangsters and Gold isn’t quite the rigorous rendering it deserves.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The post Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Big Mack: Gangsters and Gold’ on Netflix, a Stranger-Than-Fiction Doc About a Career Crook’s Wrongful Conviction appeared first on Decider.