Directed by Markus Schleinzer. Starring Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger, Christine Kain Club, IFI, Dublin, 94 min
This stark, forensic portrayal of a paedophile and his victim is a serious film that demands attention, writes DONALD CLARKE
WHEN APPROACHING an Austrian film, the informed viewer knows not to expect too many dancing penguins or clowns in exploding cars. In recent decades, directors such as Ulrich Seidl, Götz Spielmann and the great Michael Haneke have delivered some of the grimmest films ever to darken the arthouse.
That said, veterans of Austria’s cinema may still be taken aback by the quiet misery of Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut. Long established as the country’s most prestigious casting director, Schleinzer has bravely elected to tackle certain notorious incidents in recent Austrian history.
Michaelconcerns a withdrawn, evasive paedophile who has imprisoned a young boy in his sterile basement. You don’t (or shouldn’t) tackle this sort of material without thinking long and hard. The finished project, though predictably disturbing, turns out to be a model of responsible film- making. Shot in cold light using a mobile camera, Michaelnever strays into gratuitous explicitness or inappropriate sensationalism. It comes across as a sober reflection on a topic that we generally try to avoid considering too deeply.
The story is simple. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a drone in a blank, forbidding office. Every day he returns from work, closes the metal shutters on his windows, passes into his dungeon and escorts young Wolfgang upstairs for an evening of horrid food and tense conversation. In one chilling moment, after spending time in the basement, we see him making a check mark in a ledger. What has occurred is all too clear.
The relationship is a perverse variation on what goes on between father and son. Michael disciplines the boy, tends to his essential needs and encourages him to do his chores. But nothing like affection ever passes between them.
As the picture progresses, the protagonist runs into a series of complications. The boy falls ill. Michael gets hit by a car and has to spend several days in hospital. He has a sordid fling with a work colleague who makes the mistake of visiting him at home.
Though the film could never be mistaken for a genre piece, Schleinzer very craftily, very quietly wracks up the tension during these incidents. The fate of the boy is always lurking at the back of the viewers’ minds.
Michaelhas, perhaps inevitably, already attracted criticism. Some have remarked that the film focuses all its attention on the perpetrator and refuses to dig into the victim’s character. It is, however, too easy to play to an audience’s better instincts and construct such a film around a vulnerable hero. Most of us can’t hope to understand that degree of suffering and it would be glib to pretend that we can. A cool procedural approach is surely the more appropriate way to proceed.
There have also been suggestions that the film takes a non-judgmental approach to its title character.
This is an empty argument. No reasonable person will view the film without coming to his or her own inevitable conclusions about the wretchedness of Michael’s actions. We don’t require an authorial voice to tell us that the man has stepped far beyond the bounds of decent behaviour.
Still, one might reasonably ask why viewers would wish to subject themselves to such a gruelling experience. On a superficial level, the film works as a thoughtful, existential melodrama. The final scenes, in particular, have an appallingly disturbing momentum.
But Michaeldoes have undeniable moral purpose. It forces us to ponder the way society chooses – another easy option – to comfortingly reclassify such perpetrators as monsters. Humans do extraordinarily bad things. In most ways, however, even the most appalling villain remains depressingly ordinary.