For decades director Joe Berlinger has specialized in exploring some of the most violent and disturbing crimes imaginable. These include the "Paradise Lost" trilogy he co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky, which documented the murder of three 8-year-old boys from Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis and the subsequent doubts about the convictions of the three teenagers charged with committing them.
He has also made "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger," about the notorious Boston gangster, "Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders," "Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer" as well as less disturbing fare like "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" and the Paul Simon documentary "Under African Skies."
"The Bundy thing ('Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile') was surprisingly successful," Berlinger says. "Success begets other serial killers but to me, it was a bit of an aberration of what I normally do. I tried to look at all my serial killer stories through a ... social justice lens, so I don't feel like I was rehashing old stories."
"With (Netflix's 'Conversations with a Killer') [Jeffrey] Dahmer and [John Wayne] Gacy in particular, you have these stories of horrible police neglect because of homophobia and prevailing attitudes toward marginalized communities, black communities."
His latest subject, Bernard Madoff, seemed like an evil financial genius. Who but a numeric wizard could make off with $64 billion of other people's money?
"I feel like I've been in this lane of serial killers, and true crime is obviously performing incredibly well for Netflix, but I said to them we need to expand the definition of what true crime is."
So when the streaming service proposed "Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street," Berlinger was intrigued.
"I don't know if you know this about me, but I'm a major Wall Street geek."
Madoff wore expensive suits and once served on the board of the technology stock exchange NASDAQ. Berlinger says the similarities between criminals he has covered like John Wayne Gacy and Bulger are striking.
"He's been mythologized as an evil genius who single-handedly pulled the wool over Wall Street's eyes. The truth is he was enabled by a greedy Wall Street," he says.
"Madoff" reveals that it took little cunning to create his doomed investment plans. Investors received checks, not knowing that Madoff had made no trades whatsoever and simply handed older clients who had money that had been invested by newer clients who didn't understand that promises of long, slow steady returns are less realistic than an episode of "Game of Thrones." In the real world, the prices of commodities rise and fall depending on demand.
Madoff's life has made for some decent television drama. Oscar winners Richard Dreyfuss ("Madoff") and Robert De Niro ("The Wizard of Lies") have both had good cracks at the role. The latter vividly documents how Madoff's family collapsed after his fraud become public.
Nonetheless, Berlinger says his four-part documentary explains how Madoff committed his misdeeds and the long-term harm of his legacy in a way fiction filmmakers can't. "The opportunity to dissect the Ponzi scheme in a way that's never been done before. With the scripted shows, how do you explain it without all the horrible expositional dialogue. They're fine movies, and you get the interior mind stuff, but you walk away from these movies having no clue how did the Ponzi scheme work."
If there was complexity to Madoff's swindle it was in making his victims think he had unique systems and by presenting them with bogus earning statements each month. With most retirement plans, a customer can follow an investment online in real time and make adjustments. Madoff's customers had to trust dot matrix print outs. (Yes, this was after the 1980s.)
"There was no online access. The program that was created by the computer guys to track and collate the fake trades could only be supported on a dot matrix printer. It's insane how that scheme worked," Berlinger says.
"Goldman Sachs and Solomon Brothers famously said 'we're not investing in this. We don't know how he's getting these returns.' If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. If you don't understand how an investment is functioning, then don't invest in it."
THROUGH THE SAME FOG
The filmmaker not only clarifies what Madoff did with the billions he stole but puts viewers through the same fog the swindler's customers and regulators experienced.
As real Madoff employees or FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission agents recall dealing with him, Berlinger seamlessly transitions to re-enactments. It helps make the fate of those he ripped off easier to understand.
"I wanted to play with the idea that Bernie's whole operation was smoke and mirrors, but to visually explain things. I really wanted to lean into the idea of having the interview subjects be on a set that is a replica of the 17th (where Madoff's Ponzi scheme ran) and 19th floors (where the legitimate trading took place).
"I'd do the interviews the same time as the re-creation, which is not easy to do because you have to plan that in advance. The camera drifts off to a re-creation based off of what one of my characters was talking about," Berlinger says.
The filmmaker also took care to account for the damage Madoff did to his clients. One flatly states that he can no longer provide for his disabled son. It also takes a special kind of villain to rip off Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, the author of "The Night Trilogy." If Berlinger let the victims describe their struggles in vivid detail, Madoff never did.
'BLAMING THE VICTIMS'
"One of the fascinating things in the show that's never been seen before is the deposition tapes, and in those deposition tapes, he's blaming the victims. That's classic serial killer," Berlinger says.
Madoff ended up dying in prison and paid for his crimes in a way that few other criminals ever will. As of this writing, it is unlikely he will ever receive a proper burial. His ashes sit on a mantel in an attorney's office because no one will claim them.
While his film may help clarify how Madoff led the largest Ponzi scheme yet, Berlinger warns that more will arise.
He's probably right.
The Washington Post and The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently reported about an alleged scheme in Nevada that targeted members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that may have cost its victims nearly $500 million. Madoff used a similar affinity scheme with fellow Jews.
Madoff may also have been the only Wall Street criminal who went to prison in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse.
"Wall Street was bailed out at the expense of Main Street," Berlinger says. "And yet this one guy rises to the top over people's psyches, and everyone projected their hate onto him."