By Alan Mattli
The world abounds in delicate subjects, many of which have been the inspiration for films, despite their stigma. However, there are a few that are so tabooed that even the notion of centering a film, a work of fiction no less, around them generates controversy. Austrian casting director and actor Markus Schleinzer experienced this with his first feature as a director and screenwriter. Michael is about paedophilia, its main character being the offender. This would be a risky project to actualise under any circumstances but the matter is made even more precarious by the fact that Schleinzer’s native country is only slowly recovering from the trauma of two cases concerning paedophilia: Natascha Kampusch was held captive in a cellar for more than eight years before finally managing to escape in 2006; Josef Fritzl was arrested in 2008 after keeping his daughter imprisoned for 24 years and forcing an incestuous relationship upon her. Then again, controversy and angry responses from critics are exactly what a debut filmmaker like Schleinzer needs. If you strip Michael to its bare essentials, you find a clinical, tasteful, overly distant drama about one of the most horrible crimes imaginable.
You wouldn’t think to look at him if he passed you on the street. Thirtysomething Michael (Michael Fuith) looks about as average as it gets. He works for an insurance company where he’s up for a promotion, his colleagues like him, even if he mainly keeps to himself, he gets along well with his mother (Christine Kain) and sister (Ursula Strauss), he joins old friends for a skiing trip, and he inhabits a cosy if inconspicuous house somewhere in Lower Austria. In the soundproof cellar of said house, he has locked 10-year-old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), whom he rapes regularly. But apart from this, Michael’s relationship with the boy very much resembles one between single father and son: he takes him to the zoo, they celebrate Christmas – gifts included –, they play board games, they watch television together. One day, Michael is hit by a car which prompts Wolfgang to resist his captor.
One of the arguments detractors of Markus Schleinzer’s debut brought forth against the film was that the film is an utterly hypocritical one, that it indulges in perverse, cynical voyeurism, in spite of Michael excelling at avoiding the crude and graphic; it lets the horror of Wolfgang’s incarceration happen in the viewers’ minds. We don’t see Michael rape his victim, seeing the fixed camera slowly become shakier, and, after a cut, getting a glimpse of Michael washing his penis is enough to convey the message. This is not to say that Schleinzer does not aim to shock, but the way he does it is much more subtle. His cold, oftentimes even neutral staging creates an uncanny distance between the spectator and the characters. We feel like we should be invested in Wolfgang’s fate but we can’t because there is simply too little we know about him, so we are stuck with Michael as our only attachment figure.
Although this might offend some people, especially because the film desists from any kind of psychologisation, it offers an unusual and uneasy perspective, which is often fascinating to behold. Schleinzer and cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz act as the dégagé onlookers of cruel life unfolding, directed by seemingly unavoidable coincidences. It becomes evident how easy it is for Michael to abduct children; how a car crash is something incidental. Unfortunately, the lack of real emotional investment does take away from the overall experience because the oppressive impassiveness borders on superficiality more than once. Moreover, there is the odd scene where Schleinzer cynically tries to incorporate something resembling black humour into the story, which, even if it’s deliberate, not only falls flat but doesn’t even generate the laugh that’s supposed to freeze on our faces. It’s those few and scattered scenes where it becomes obvious that Michael‘s director is still, after all, a debutant. What cannot be denied, though, is his talent as a casting director. Both Michael Fuith and David Rauchenberger are perfectly cast. It’s particularly Fuith who shines in his tender yet imperious, human yet bestial portrayal of Michael.
Ultimately, Michael is an experiment. Schleinzer takes on a highly touchy subject and offers his viewers no protagonist but a sick mind one can neither understand nor root for. On the other side of the relationship central to the film, we find a kid that remains distant throughout – we don’t even get to know his name until the closing credits – and, in the few instances we do see him, does not inspire empathy despite the horrid things we know happen to him. Insofar, Michael is as much a movie about ourselves as it is about its titular character. Still, the treatment of this character is too superficial, too sporadic, and too cynically incidental to leave an allaround positive and enduring impression.