Monday, November 03, 2008
The story is peculiar even by the standards of the tabloids. To victimize someone for money is fairly common, but to victimize them for money in revenge for how their family abused your father is something else entirely.
The owner of the Valle Grande Country House, Ernano Barretta, 63, is in jail in Italy; his accomplice, gigolo par excellence Helg Sgarbi, 41, was arrested in Austria and is in prison in Germany facing trial for extortion. The story of their incredible swindle, and how greed got the better of them, first emerged in Italy in June with Mr Barretta’s arrest. At the time the name of their alleged victim was kept out of the media. But now that she has been revealed as BMW heiress Susanne Klatten, the richest woman in Germany, the story has taken on a new dimension.
And not only because of the stratospheric wealth of Ms Klatten, and the hole the affair has punched in the privacy of one of Germany’s most discreet business dynasties. But also because Helg Sgarbi – if leaks from the interrogation of his partner are to be believed – was much more than just a staggeringly effective extortioner. He is also said to be a man bent on exacting revenge for the crimes of BMW against his father, a Polish Jew and, during the war, a slave labourer in a BMW factory. The group made munitions, aero engines and batteries for U-boats and V2 rockets. If it is true, as alleged, that Mr Sgarbi bedded Ms Klatten in posh hotels in Monte Carlo, Munich and elsewhere, he was sleeping with the enemy, with a cruel vendetta in mind.
Mrs Klatten, 46, is the great grand-daughter of Gunther Quandt, the founder of BMW who died in 1954 and whose first wife, Magda, later married the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. The heiress has a degree in marketing and management from the University of Buckingham and worked with with Dresdner Bank and McKinsey, the consultants, before she was appointed to the supervisory board of BMW in 1997.
I couldn't help but recall the vindictiveness of the character of Abner Snopes in Faulkner's famous short story, Barn Burning, but any comparison with Sgarbi is necessarily inexact. As demonstrated by his targeting of the barns of the landed aristocracy, Snopes possessed an inchoate social sensibility that suggested anarchism, especially his insistence upon living a life of pyromanic illegality, but one that was never fully developed because his circumstances did not put him contact with others with whom he could act collectively.
For Sgarbi, it was apparently all personal. Perhaps, a better analogy is the unnamed man, nicknamed Harmonica, played by Charles Bronson in Sergio Leone's epic Marxist western, Once Upon a Time in the West. After having witnessed the death of his older brother as a young boy at the hands of Frank, a ruthless gunfighter hired to clear land for railroad barons, he learns the skills of the trade himself. As an adult, he hunts down Frank, killing him in a showdown just before a dusty proletarian workforce of whites, blacks and Asians spill out of railcars to push the tracks of the railroad forward nearby. Harmonica recognizes that he has no place in the emergent bourgeois society as symbolized by the railroad, and departs on his horse.
It is tempting to relate to Sgarbi in terms of a similar code of honor, absent the fictionalized class context, but, while he may have humiliated his intended victim in an especially psychologically brutal way, and considered himself justified in doing so, he did not forgot to enrich himself along the way. Conversely, it is easy to forget, upon an initial reflexive empathy for Klatten, that, although she was not personally responsible for the horrors perpetrated by her father, she never renounced the incredible wealth that he amassed and subsequently passed to her. And, of course, she did gleefully sleep around with someone in the best hotels in Europe while her husband remained home.
Accordingly, there is an amorality that runs throughout this tawdry story. It cries out for an Bret Easton Ellis to expose the banality of the protagonists within the form of the novel, or an Oshima Nagisa to exploit it cinematically as a means of examining a broader alienation. It is telling that Klatten barely escaped being kidnapped in the late 1970s, and had to frequently adopt an assumed name. Back then, she was imperiled by a violence that was founded upon an ideological belief, however naive and misguided, that the world could be transformed for the better by visiting the sins of the fathers upon their children. Now, she finds herself tragically embarrassed by someone who merely parasitically engorged himself upon the emotional frailties of the rich and powerful.