PRINT February 2012


Markus Schleinzer’s Michael

Markus Schleinzer, Michael, 2011, still from a color HD video, 96 minutes. Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) and Michael (Michael Fuith).

THE TITLE CHARACTER of writer-director Markus Schleinzer’s arresting first feature is thirty-five, balding, bespectacled, weak-chinned, a bit doughy around the middle. He is a punctilious employee of an Austrian insurance firm, reporting to work in crisply pressed shirts (which he irons himself), V-neck sweaters, and ties; his assiduity earns him a promotion. A bachelor, he returns every night to a modest, spotless home. After lowering his electric shutters, he sets the table for himself and his dinner companion: the ten-year-old boy he keeps locked up in his basement and sexually abuses.

A meticulously observed, tonally assured film that exposes just how banal evil is, Michael recounts the last five months of the relationship between the pedophile (played by Michael Fuith) and his prisoner, whose name is never uttered but who is identified in the closing credits as Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger, making his acting debut). The Vienna-born Schleinzer began as a casting director, notably working with other Austrian filmmakers such as Ulrich Seidl, Jessica Hausner, and Michael Haneke, for whom Schleinzer coached the child actors—whose characters also suffer unspeakable abuses by stern patriarchs—in the grim, pre–World War I movie The White Ribbon (2009).

Schleinzer’s skill in guiding Rauchenberger in a project that treats such an abominable subject never falters. Wolfgang is highly vulnerable but fiercely intelligent, and the novice actor manages to convey a steely acuity even in the most horrific circumstances. The boy’s spirit is never fully broken by his immurement in a subterranean room, where he somehow manages to defend his psychic core from continual violation. Though watching Michael is certainly an uncomfortable experience, as the young protagonist is constantly imperiled, Schleinzer earns his viewers’ trust early on: The instances of sexual assault are implied, the director cutting after just enough detail has been parceled out.

Forgoing exploitation, prurience, and simplistic moralizing, Schleinzer relies on dispassionate, frequently dialogue-free scrutiny instead. To ensure that Michael, a purely fictional creation, bore some semblance to real-life predators, the director asked a forensic psychiatrist to vet his completed script. (The psychiatrist in question, Dr. Heidi Kastner, was an expert witness for the prosecution in the 2009 trial of Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter captive in a bunker under his home in Austria for twenty-four years, repeatedly raping her and fathering her seven children. Kastner has a cameo in Schleinzer’s film, appearing as an interviewee on a TV news segment about missing children.) Michael’s appalling acts are made all the more so by their juxtaposition with the surface ordinariness that helps conceal them: the insipid facade of the diligent, if aloof, office worker; of the mildly concerned neighbor able to make small talk about a missing cat; of the skiing enthusiast (though an inept one) who goes to a mountain resort with two buddies.

Michael’s ghastly secret life itself takes on the semblance of “normalized” ritual. By repeatedly showing him performing the most mundane chores, such as the nightly table setting and the after-dinner washing up, done with Wolfgang’s assistance, Schleinzer mordantly defamiliarizes everyday tasks, here used to perpetuate an unimaginable domestic arrangement. (A later scene, in which “father” and “son” scour Wolfgang’s cell, puts tidying up in a more malevolent context.) Even holidays are dutifully observed, though they require subterfuge. Exchanging Christmas gifts with his sister at a café (including a Harry Potter book for one of his nephews), Michael gently rebuffs her invitation to spend the holiday with her family: “Thanks, but you know how I like to spend Christmas alone,” he says, before the desultory conversation turns to Andrea, his imaginary girlfriend who “lives in Germany.” At home, Michael and his prepubescent prisoner decorate the tree, sing “Silent Night,” and exchange gifts.

The movie’s boldest risk (and greatest accomplishment) is simply to chronicle the specifics of the interaction between the abducted and the abductor—to show their “involuntary life together,” per the coy description in the official program for the Cannes film festival, where Michael had its world premiere last May. When Wolfgang’s captivity began is never specified; the film begins in medias res, but it is clear that enough time has passed that Michael and Wolfgang have acclimated to their respective roles in this depraved dyad.

Nowhere is the perversion of their relationship and the horrors of its particulars more apparent than during Wolfgang’s one afternoon outside. Michael has taken him on a late-autumn excursion to a park, alternately bossing him around like a short-fused parent—or a domineering, peevish lover—and pathetically attempting to show affection. A shot of the two silently standing in front of a diorama reveals Michael’s hand firmly clasping Wolfgang’s, the boy subtly trying to inch away from this stiff, forced display of tenderness, this weird pantomime of normality. Unlike Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), in which an ostensible paragon of middle-class success turns out to be a pedophile who rapes his son’s friends, Michael features no teary scenes of confrontation, no bids for audience sympathy for the predator. A profoundly cool work, the film is scorching in its observations.

Michael opens on February 15 at Film Forum in New York.

Melissa Anderson is a regular contributor to the Village Voice.