Cyberbunker: The Criminal Underworld 2023 Movie Review
Netflix’s documentaries spawn quite a lot of memes, which revolve basically around their tendency to pick subject matters that may not fully lend themselves to a documentary. The latest Netflix documentary Cyberbunker: The Criminal Underworld uses all the tricks in the book to raise the stakes of the documentary and create the illusion of a gripping narrative, but in all honesty, it’s just obfuscation in the hope that people will find it interesting. The story is about a few rather odd individuals who came together to form a company Cyberbunker, that let websites host their data, even if the data was of criminal nature.
This simple idea for a whole documentary seems short of breath to run the course, which is why there has to be the ‘talking heads’ approach to the narrative. People sit in front of the camera, and like in a news report, the actual events are dramatized poorly. There is no real acting anywhere in the dramatizations, but the main problem is they are too sporadically placed in the narrative. There is real police footage as well, which is interwoven in the narrative to give somewhat of a gritty feel to the documentary, but it always boils down to how the idea of the documentary is being perceived by the makers. Directors Kilian Lieb and Max Rainer have a very straight approach to this Cyberbunker case in the beginning at least, which reminded me of so many fiction films where there is a burst of energy right at the start. Like Inside Man or even JFK, for that matter, what Lieb and Rainer’s documentary holds onto is the sinister and exciting spirit it knows this beginning will create. The character of Xennt keeps the enigma that radiates the necessary energy to keep everything held together.
Herman Johan Xennt, the founder of Cyberbunker, was always fascinated by World War II bunkers. One individual even referred to him as a digital Peter Pan who refused to grow up. So why is Xennt the prime figure of this documentary? Well, to be honest, another member of the Cyberbunker team, Sven Kamphuis, seemed to be much more of an impactful character than Xennt, but as Xennt is the founder and he looks and acts like a James Bond villain, it’s easier to build a narrative around him. This doesn’t mean that Sven looks like Prince Charming, but for the purposes of making the film’s ending rather hard-hitting, he was kept at a distance. Xennt brought together several people, including Sven, when the Internet was just in its infancy and the world had no idea what it could do or what cybercrime even was. The whole deal with his service, Cyberbunker, was that they were pro-privacy and had a thing for radical freedom, which is why they allowed all sorts of website data to get hosted by their servers, which were kept safe and secure in an actual bunker in the small German town of Traben-Trarbach. The websites were used to traffic illegal drugs, involved notorious criminals, and in the end, there were some instances of explicit material involving children as well; hence, Xennt became embroiled in a case where he was tried for aiding and abetting such websites through his hosting service.
Ah! The tediousness! More tedious is the thriller approach to the topic. The hesitant nature of this film is deeply frustrating. At one point, it looked like after setting up the entire premise, it would go deep into the psychological and philosophical truths about how these individuals emerged in our culture and where we are heading as a society. But it seemed more interested in justifying why the documentary should exist—because it was showing us Xennt’s bunker, a magnificent underground space that he had bought after getting wealthy from selling computers in the 90s. There are lengthy sequences dedicated to this bunker, where the people in the company lived and worked. But one needed only to show the server room, and the rest was done by Xennt’s backstory. Xennt, a cross between Steve Jobs and ‘that guy from Star Trek’, as described by Sven, was an ambitious man who looked down on consumer culture and was absolutely terrified of the outside world it seemed. He was a creator, and the demon he created was used to cause mayhem in the world.
The film lacks the critical eye to see this figure. There is a sense that he is just a good topic for hyping up the documentary and nothing else. An aura is created around him that pushes him as a James Bond villain even before he shows up, creating a picture of him in our minds. The use of the music here also deliberately sets up expectations that Xennt is some kind of an alien, waiting for World War III to occur so he could laugh at humanity for not having built many bunkers similar to the one he had. The only point where the film seemed grounded in its narrative was near the end, where Sven’s attitude towards the evil in this world and his entire worldview were presented to us, and then there were counterarguments to the same. Cyberbunker seemed to be more interested in having the embryo for the episodes of a miniseries than being a documentary.
The first embryo was when the peculiar characters were introduced, who had labeled the Cyberbunker their own sovereign country with made-up titles, laws, and ideologies. There was humor to be derived from there, I guess, because the film did little to juxtapose it with something somber, commentating on the mindset of the people. Are they fully sane? Then there was the second embryo with the espionage angle, which would be a great idea for a taut thriller, where German police sent undercover officers to infiltrate the Cyberbunker group. It is only when the trial begins that the film relaxes and feels at ease, removing the slickness or hullabaloo it had maintained up to that point. The weakest part of Cyberbunker, is that it has invited locals from Traben-Trarbach who don’t seem relevant. There is a hairdresser in the movie who talks with bright eyes about the one time she styled Xennt’s hair and reappears as well. Too many talking heads speak a lot but end up saying too little.