Hollywood sticks with Swiss banker ‘caricature’

Laughing all the way to prison: French actor Jean Dujardin as Swiss banker/crook Jean Jacques Saurel Paramount Pictures

Following the worldwide release of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, looks at the Swiss side of the story of New York stockbrokers in the early 1990s and at how Switzerland’s private bankers are portrayed on the big screen.

This content was published on January 21, 2014
Paula Dupraz-Dobias in Geneva,

The Oscar-nominated film is based on Jordan Belfort’s memoirs of brokers who defraud millions of dollars from unwitting clients and indulge in an outrageous life of drugs, sex and conspicuous consumption. It also features a suave Geneva banker, whom Belfort meets in an effort to stash away some of his ill-gotten funds.

The scenes involving the Union Bancaire Privée (UBP) banker project a smooth and sleazy character who is instantly disposed to assist Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and who leads a similarly decadent life, having an affair with one of the New Yorker’s money-smuggling Swiss relatives.

“Mr Belfort’s story presented the reality that he wanted to relay,” Jean-Jacques Handali, the original Geneva banker who is depicted in the film, told

“He wrote a book and made a film and he exaggerated in the latter vis-à-vis the former, and also vis-à-vis the reality.”

Handali, a French citizen, is currently director of a Geneva wealth management firm. When contacted by phone, he said he wished to remain discreet with regard to the story. In The Wolf of Wall Street, his name, as many of the other characters, has been changed: Handali becomes Jean Jacques Saurel.

As shown in the film, Handali was arrested in Florida in 1994, together with one of Belfort’s business associates, on separate narcotics money-laundering charges. US authorities considered him a central figure for an international money-laundering ring. Switzerland froze $15 million (CHF13.6 million) in a UBP account linked to the case.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) was directed by Martin Scorsese and is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a former stockbroker who had an amazingly excessive lifestyle before being convicted of stock market fraud, for which he ended up in prison.

French actor Jean Dujardin, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 2011 for his role in the global hit The Artist, appears as a suave and crooked Swiss banker.

The film has been nominated for five Oscars (to be awarded on March 2): Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Adapted Screenplay for Terence Winter, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, and Best Supporting Actor for Jonah Hill.

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On the issue of the film’s accuracy, FBI agent Gregory Coleman, who headed the investigation that led to Belfort’s arrest, recently told the New York Times, “I tracked this guy for ten years, and everything he wrote [in his memoir] is true”. 

But for Frédéric Maire, director of the Swiss national film archives, “in Hollywood films, there is an archetypical image of the Swiss banker which is always a caricature”.

The image of the Swiss banker, ever disposed to accept funds from questionable sources, has long appeared in Hollywood films. James Bond films reinforced this stereotype, while the Jason Bourne spy thrillers emphasised the issue of secrecy.

Maire classified two forms of caricature by which the banker is represented. “He is either depicted as a high roller, as in The Wolf of Wall Street, or as a rigid, balding, stiff, secretive, Protestant, Germanic type who would blend into the landscape.”

Maire also distinguished between the depiction of “economic mechanisms used to hide money in secret accounts, which I imagine is absolutely plausible” and how the character is presented. “Due to an actor’s personality, by the way that he acts and speaks, this can be exaggerated,” he said.

The portrayal of Handali/Saurel, he added, was “a bit ridiculous and exaggerated” and “not very Swiss… it was interpreted by a very famous French actor [Jean Dujardin], reinforcing the unreliable side of the character”.


Sindy Schmiegel, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), told the SBA “was not looking into cultural perceptions in the banking industry” and “does not have any insight into the behaviour of individual banks or bank employees”.

She nonetheless said: “We are trying to show the public that there is nothing clandestine about Swiss banking. There are very strict regulations in Swiss banking.”

UBP, the Geneva bank cited in Belfort’s story, refused to comment on the firm’s representation in Scorsese’s film. Geneva daily Le Temps reported last summer that panels were placed over the bank’s name during the presence of the film crew in Geneva.

Frédéric Maire said he did not expect the Hollywood image of the Swiss banker to change anytime soon, in spite of the profound changes that have taken place within the sector. 

“Stereotypes maintain a certain solidity… even if the reality means that we should be more open as banking secrecy is tending to disappear,” he said.

“This image is static, in that Switzerland represents banking, secrecy and a lot of money of dubious provenance.”

In Swiss cinema, he explained, the banker is viewed differently. “We find that our bankers are “cold” or totally normal. We are not in a reality as they are portrayed in The Wolf of Wall Street. It would appear that our cinematographers are not interested in representing this world, maybe because we don’t find it very sexy.”

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