(Markus Schleinzer, 2011, Austria)
A protégé of European cinema’s chief provocateur Michael Haneke, Markus Schleinzer makes his blistering directorial debut with Michael, the story of a seemingly ordinary man with a dark, distressing secret; his lonely existence is salvaged by the 10 year old boy he has stowed away in his soundproof, isolated basement.
Avoiding relationships with his family, as well as colleagues at a comfortable insurance job, and working through his everyday routines with understated precision, Michael (played with cool menace by Austrian actor Michael Fuith) is mild mannered to a fault, an unshowy office drone who devotes his spare time and ill-founded, muddled emotions on his helplessly vulnerable captive. Alluding to, but never showing, sexual mistreatment, Michael depicts the triviality of daily life from the perspective of a paedophile trapped by his inability to conform to normality, juxtaposed with his apparent obedience within certain social structures. Matching this complex protagonist, Schleinzer’s film is a calm and collected depiction of a chilling subject, made all the more problematic by its realism, tapping into contemporary fears of paedophilia and it’s anonymity. A touchy subject, but the film does not condone nor particularly vilify Michael for his actions (well, for the first half that is), it merely chooses to survey the occasionally nerve shredding events and asks potent questions that are rarely alleviated with easy answers.
Proving to be a dab hand at establishing and sustaining a palpable sense of tension, with every scene shared by Michael and his prisoner Wolfgang observed with a slowly terrifying sleight of touch, Schleinzer, who also wrote the screenplay, has clearly benefited from the master of cinematic vexation. He teases out the horrors of the situation with a steady hand and a tightly wound editing style which allows his stilted camerawork to fully soak in and speculate the coldness of each scene, which are intricately composed in their sparseness. Working to the films advantage are the sequences where we just sit and watch Michael live and breath in his constructed surroundings, building an intense atmosphere that spans across casual bursts of emotionally frustrating action and builds to an unexpected and breathtaking climax.
Though he doesn’t do anything particularly original, or veer away from the calculated aesthetics of a typical Haneke film (his progressively exasperating Funny Games contains key similarities), it is the way Schleinzer handles the challenging subject matter with an unshifting subtlety that awards him distinctions. In the wrong hands this could have proven to be a particularly troublesome film, but it dodges other, less artistically nuanced portrayals of paedophilia in films such as the cat and mouse retribution-style of Hard Candy, for instance. Instead, Michael combines a couple of searing and memorable performances, especially from first time actor David Rauchenberger, who is heartbreakingly potent as Wolfgang, and is more of a contemplative portrait of evil than a film solely reliant on a cause and effect style narrative development.