Sitting on a Beach Earning 20% - A Closer Look at Hans Gruber’s Scheme in Die Hard
The 1988 action bonanza Die Hard has become a perennial holiday classic in recent years. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it but, in my household, a debate rages on over whether or not Gremlins is more deserving of the title “Best Christmas Movie EVER!”
Die Hard has inspired pop punk songs, DIY Christmas ornaments, countless web articles extolling its merits as a Christmas classic and dozens of holiday cards, t-shirts, posters and far stranger stuff on Etsy (the “Now I Have a Machine Gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.” cutting board is kinda weird on a conceptual level but I’d happily dice up a turkey on one of those things).
I first watched a bloodsoaked John McClane jump off the top off Nakatomi Plaza with a fire hose tied around his waist at a drive-in movie theater in Beaverton, Oregon back in the summer of ’88. Was I too young at the time to watch such an insanely awesome and hyper-violent scene? Probably, but my parents had a lax attitude when it came to action films. My unrestricted access to the cinematic trials and tribulations of Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, etc. has provided me with some of my most cherished childhood memories. My love of the first Die Hard film runs so deep that I’ve seen it at least once every holiday season between 1989 and 2016.
But it was only during this year’s annual viewing that I began to overthink the devious scheme of the film’s villains. Does it really make sense? Let’s find out…
Why Bother Pretending to be a Terrorist, Hans?
First, a quick recap. In the film, Hans Gruber’s team pretends to be German terrorists as they infiltrate Nakatomi Plaza and hold a group of employees of a company of the same name hostage. It’s supposedly part of some sort of ideological but poorly explained conspiracy to send a message to the U.S. about corporate greed. Gruber further continues that charade after the authorities catch wind of what’s going on and he demands they release various “comrades in arms” affiliated with terrorist organizations around the world.
But it’s all a cunning ruse (or is it?). Gruber and his colleagues are just thieves posing as terrorists. They’re really after $640 million in bearer bonds tucked away in the building’s highly secured vault. But why bother with this trickery in the first place?
The movie takes place on Christmas Eve when Nakatomi Plaza is a virtual ghost town. Aside from a bored security guard stationed in the lobby, the only other people in the building are the party-goers upstairs. Gruber’s team could have easily taken out the security guard, disabled the alarm system and snuck into the vault without anyone being the wiser upstairs. If they hadn’t bothered with all the hostage taking and the gunfire and trying to coax the combination out of Joseph Takagi and what have you, Takagi and his underlings probably wouldn’t have even noticed the break-in until the Monday after New Year’s. John McClane’s marital problems might have never been reconciled but his now iconic white undershirt would have gone back to New York City with little more than a few sweat stains instead of dripping with the blood of various West German goons.
Furthermore, did they even have to shoot the security guard? It might have been possible for them to zip in unnoticed through the parking garage while posing as drunken party-goers or contractors working on one of the uncompleted offices upstairs. Do you really think the guard was closely watching the security monitor(s)? On Christmas Eve? While making, maybe, nine bucks an hour?
UPDATE: OK, since posting this article earlier today, I’ve received some feedback from a few readers noting that Gruber’s crew must pose as terrorists to trick the FBI into cutting the electricity in order to disable a final seventh lock of the electromagnetic vault that contains the bonds. For whatever reason (primarily movie logic), this can only be done by shutting off the power “at the main grid.” Uhhhhh…..really? Why not just pull the plug on the damn thing?
Seriously, there must be a way to cut off power to the vault somewhere within the building, even if that means breaking out a jackhammer and tearing through the floors or taking a sledgehammer to the walls leading up to it. A member of Gruber’s crew begins disabling all the phone lines in the building moments after their arrival with a tiny electrical saw after popping open a single panel on a metal box full of wires (well, until the short tempered Karl wanders in and makes short work of all the wires with a chainsaw instead). There’s got to be a line somewhere that can be cut, even if the vault’s power supply is located on an exterior wall. Why not just send a goon outside dressed as a repairman or a worker from a local utility company and cut it there? Plus, this is a Plan B after Gruber fails to get the code from Takagi which he needn’t have bothered to do if he had just broken into the vault in the first place.
Whatsa Bearer Bond Anyway?
I actually didn’t know the answer to this question until I started talking about the film with Scott Mongeau, a friend who works in the financial sector and has forgotten more about banking than I will ever know. Like me, he’s well familiar with the film and has given Gruber’s scheme altogether too much thought despite the fact that Die Hard is just supposed to be a mindless blockbuster.
When things start getting complicated for Gruber and his crew, he utters these lines:
“When they touch down, we’ll blow the roof. They’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.”
But how plausible would it be for a group of thieves to just sneak off to a country with no extradition laws and merrily spend the rest of their lives sipping frosty pints of Krombacher (or whatever beer German thieves would drink while exposing their pasty skin to tropical sun rays in the late ‘80s)? Not likely, according to Scott.
“Well, the scheme is actually valid as they are specifically mentioned to be ‘bearer bonds,’ which are a special class of unregistered, untraceable bonds redeemable solely based on possession (making this a favorite form of collateral for money launderers, organized crime, tax evaders, bands of Germanic sophisticated heist thieves, etc.),” Scott explained. “Blame inflation: it would be largely infeasible to transport that amount of wealth out of the building as physical bills and certainly would bog down the plot. The bearer bonds are the equivalent of cold cash, but in much higher denominations, allowing for the plot to unfold with the booty in a briefcase.”
As for “earning 20%,” that’s pretty unlikely too, at least in the long term.
“Despite Black Monday in ’87, the 80’s were a time of high inflation and interest rates to match,” Scott said. “In ’88 the prime rate topped 10%. Adding 7% or so for equities, one could stretch it to a 20% return on adventurous stock investing… though we all know this did not last, so maybe Hans would have lost it all ultimately.”
A Clean Getaway? Hardly.
As Scott further pointed out, it doesn’t make sense that the Nakatomi Corporation would have so many bearer bonds just lying around in a safe within their corporate headquarters. There’s also the question of how Hans found out about them in the first place and where they were located. Furthermore, it could have been downright impossible for him and his colleagues to redeem them, even while remaining anonymous, with every intelligence agency in the world searching for them even if they did cash them in on an individual basis.
HOWEVER, at one point, Gruber does say “Well, when you steal $600, you can just disappear. When you steal 600 million, they will find you, unless they think you’re already dead” while telling McClane why he so very badly wanted his precious detonators back.
Part of the scheme was to fake the deaths of him and his crew by “nuking the building,” which does shine a light on why they needed to pose as terrorists, kidnap the partygoers, etc. Nevertheless, they could have just as easily faked their deaths by blowing up a truck stuffed full of hobos in a random back alley while on their way to the LAX if they had just snuck in.
You might be saying to yourself “a truck full of hobos. Really? That’s ludicrous!” As if blowing up a large chunk of a skyscraper along with a bunch of office workers isn’t? A thief supposedly as cold-blooded and cunning as Gruber could have come up with a better way to cover his tracks. In comparison to the logistics of keeping the crowd under control on the roof, trying to trick the FBI agents in the helicopters that they were up there along with them AND sneak out of a building surrounded by half of Southern California’s various law enforcement agencies, the “truck full of hobos” method is substantially more practical.
Benefits of a Classical Education?
A bit of Gruber’s biography is revealed during a news broadcast in Die Hard, which further muddies the waters of his background. It turns out that he was at least briefly affiliated with a fictional West German terrorist organization called the Volksfrei Movement but they’d apparently cut ties with him. The film is also based on 1979’s Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp and the Gruber in the film is apparently pretty close to the one in the book. Thorp shines a bit more light on his time before the raid on Nakatomi Plaza (the office headquarters of the Klaxon Oil Corporation in the source material) and includes a bit that mentions that his father was an S.S. officer during World War 2.
Scott has his own theories about Gruber in the film version and what might have led him to the vault at Nakatomi Plaza. Here’s what he had to say about it:
“I believe there is an unexplored hypothetical back story to Gruber whereby he is of Swiss-German extraction and spent some time in the international banking industry in his youth. Swiss men commonly can simultaneously claim financial experience coupled with comprehensive military training. Of course, Cold War Germans were also conscripted, but that does not explain the other plot holes, namely the high-finance connection and Gruber’s aristocratic affectations. Later in the series he has an East German brother, but this could also be explained by a ruined Swiss banking family and wayward sons seeking to reclaim stature by getting involved on opposite sides of Cold War adventurism in Germany…
Anyhow, my theory is that Nakatomi was a Samsung-like family controlled conglomerate with a shadowy, paranoid pater familius. The bearer bonds are either shady money laundering proceeds, hidden corporate liquidity (I.e. to stave off a corporate takeover), or perhaps both.
How did Nakatomi get the bearer bonds? Perhaps via a shady Swiss banking clan that he subsequently betrays! So this theory is that Gruber’s family had been an intermediary for Nakatomi. Nakatomi ruins the Gruber clan banking business somehow, causing Hans and his brother to go off in search of revenge and adventurism to rebuild family fortune.
This explains how Gruber knows about bearer bonds, knows how to fence them, his aristocratic affectations, his apparent malice to Nakatomi specifically, his comprehensive military training. I’m likely over reaching, but if one had to write a Gruber prequel, it wouldn’t be a bad backstory!”
Fists With Your Toes
Ultimately, Gruber’s plans aren’t quite as ridiculous as I assumed before Scott offered up his analysis. Whether or not he could have made practical use of those bonds on that beach, well, I’ll leave that up to you to further untangle. The film takes place during the Christmas season and, as Gruber chirply tells his master lockbreaker Theo, “it’s the time of miracles.”
Now all this aside, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: making fists with your toes on a carpet after getting off a plane is not an effective way to “survive air travel.”
Merry Christmas and happy New Year!