A former casting director for Michael Haneke, Markus Schleinzer’s austere debut Michael (2011) is a harrowing, yet absorbing examination of paedophilia which whilst containing numerous similarities with the great Austrian director’s detached cinematic fabric, is very much a unique and assured film of its own.
Michael (Michael Fuith), a plain and harmless looking businessman returns to his suburban home from his uninspiring job to cook an unappetising dinner for himself and nine-year-old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger). The two eat and then watch a couple of hours of television together before Michael sends the boy to bed. However, instead of running upstairs to brush his teeth and be read a bedtime story, Michael accompanies Wolfgang to a lockable, soundproofed room in the basement. Schleinzer’s film is a story heavily anchored in controversy which, through revealing very little, has traversed sensationalism and created one of the most provocative and alarming arthouse features of recent years.
After the recent high profile case of Josef Fritzl, Michael’s ultra-sensitive subject matter of sexual abuse and domestic incarceration could easily have been confused for a scientific experiment into the psychological make-up of these ‘monsters’ we’ve become so accustomed to reading about in the media. Indeed, whilst Schleinzer’s film does consist of an incredibly clinical approach, delving deep behind the calm and normal veneer of Michael’s life to expose the mundane rituals of such a heinous criminal, there remains a multitude of dramatic twists and turns to keep things riveting. Its this delicate and intricate direction from Schleinzer which allows the film to evade controversy, yet in doing so has made its unsettling story all the more horrific.
Michael is most affective however when young Wolfgang is away from the screen. Schleinzer sporadically removes us from Wolfgang’s suburban prison to observe Michael clumsily attempt to integrate himself into society. Whether he’s out trying to ‘find’ a companion for Wolfgang, or on an awkward work skiing trip, it becomes agonising to watch, with the audience constantly reminded of the dark secret Michael hides and genuinely concerned for Wolfgang’s welfare whilst he’s left in a windowless, basement cell – constantly aware of the consequences if something were to happen to his captor. It’s this intelligent manipulation of the audience which is Schleinzer’s greatest achievement, unwillingly making us actual care about the welfare of this detestable man and despite stemming from our desire to see Wolfgang safe it still provokes a bizarre sensation of guilt from the viewer.
Undeniably a remarkable cinematic achievement, Michael is perhaps one of the most horrifying films you’ll see all year, with its sedate and sterile approach leaving you in an almost paralysed state of anxious shock throughout.