Theater of Cruelty

For a fist dollar or two

Playing God
Regissør: Karin Jurschick

Why is a stockbroker worth a million dollars more than a firefighter who sacrificed life during 9 / 11? What reactions do the compensation payments generate? In Playing God, meeting a man who has dedicated his life to considering what other people's lives are worth.


This is not a clinical, investigative documentary. Rather, it is a warm portrait in the Cohen brothers tones of a man with an impossible job.


Ken Feinberger explains while sitting in the car: "With what I have been doing and doing for the past 30 years, you should steel yourself for criticism. You relate to people in grief, who have lost loved ones, who are angry. You cannot do what I do and expect boast and gratitude – not from sacrifice. The public, on the other hand, can understand and appreciate what I do after a crisis. "

What is it like to be Feinberger – the one who constantly puts his head forward and is legally chopped off? The elder lawyer is one of America's foremost specialists in determining compensation for accidents and disasters. It is easy to make mistakes – he has experienced this painfully. The violent emotions trigger the loss of innocent lives, best compared to a devastating hurricane. Feinberger's assessments have consequences for thousands of vulnerable people in mourning. He has dealt with the major tragedies – such as 9 / 11, the Vietnam veterans' damage effects from Agent Orange and the settlement following BN's record-breaking oil spill.

The film follows Fein-Berger in reflections and professional practice in the present and also offers archival material from his previous work. Much of the material and encounters with relatives are outrageous and very emotional. As a modern King Solomon, he is in the midst of impossible decisions. Few are of the caliber that they get this horrible balance art. How can he be so conscientious and give so much care in such a cynical job a lifetime? When I discovered that he has a Jewish background, the pieces fell into place. An endless collection of photographs by Feinberger along with a number of US presidents testify to respect and recognition.

Karin Jurschick questions the American culture that converts everything into monetary value.

The film also brings in other aspects of his financial evaluations – such as in the work of the US Treasury. The heartbreaking cutback process in the Ministry's Pension Fund clarifies the dilemmas and wasps he goes into. Charismatic and committed Feinberger travels around from mass meeting to mass meeting. Retirees and others are off – will they end up having to queue up to get food vouchers? Time is not enough – Feinberger asks an older man to join him and continue the conversation as he has to leave the room. The money does not suffice either, the pension fund does not carry the challenge. An increasing proportion of pensioners and a declining proportion of taxpayers are raising this issue for most countries. What about those who have worked and struggled all their lives and are now deprived of a worthy old age? The movie has no answers. It asks questions.

Blood Money?

Is it right to put a price tag on a person? What are the surrounding effects and reactions when life is turned into a dollar? Feinberger points out that in the United States, tragedies are processed through cash payments based on probable life income. With this film, German director Karin Jurschick questions the American culture that translates everything into monetary value.

The victims, the relatives are allowed to speak. The dream of a sports car becomes meaningless when you lose one of your loved ones. "Blood Money!" another exclaims about the amount of compensation she has been offered. Can losing one's loved one, one's life partner, father of one's children be valued? Feinberger is also bothered – when several relatives do not want to receive money. This will be like an open wound to him. They have neither received the compensation that is supposed to be liable for the loss, nor have they waived the opportunity to sue those responsible.

As a modern King Solomon, he is in the midst of impossible decisions.

Feinberger is still on the move. He tries to alleviate, make the right decisions – those he knows will also be perceived as cynical. A friend on a coffee visit asks for the compensation for all the paperless Latin Americans who perished during 9/11. The system has many weaknesses and the compensation brings no justice in this case.

Price tags and secrecy

I sit and ponder how other cultures deal with similar traumatic crises. A natural counterpart to watch is the superpower of China. After the Sichuan earthquake, where thousands of schoolchildren were killed when a state school building collapsed, the government threw down the tragedy. The famous artist Weiwei gathered volunteers, and together they managed to trace the names of the dead children. The death lists were published and used together in a work of art. The Chinese regional police responded with blunt force: Weiwei was awakened in the middle of the night and struck so hard in the head that he had to be urgently operated. Why this brutal reaction? It is probably not about losing face, about giving a shine that you, as a governing power, handle the unmanageable. Different regimes turn to what they have done before – China turns to secrecy and violent reprisals, the United States turns national tragedies into money.

Bright dark

A strip of light hits the skull of private man Fein-berg, who sits immersed in an armchair in the dark. He says he remembers every one of them for which he has set compensation amounts, that he will take them all with him in the grave. The camera looks at him from a distance, outside the window, behind a door. Is it respect that keeps the director at a distance? An understanding of what inhuman and incomprehensible Ken Feinberg should have, and carries, on his shoulders?

The intense opera music from a TV further afield is a vivid contrast to the gloomy room with dense shadows. His face is gentle and open. I find myself immediately liking this older gentleman who uses the TV as his music provider. He admits it is an escape and exclaims: “During the day I see the worst of civilization – death, rage, frustration, tragedy. At night I experience its heights – concerts, opera, Wagner, Verdi, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler. ”

Playing God is so much more than the obvious account of a man with the cruel power to value the priceless. Fortunately, he is more concerned about being human than playing God.

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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