Michael (2011)

18 March 2012

"This is my knife and this is my cock. Which do you want in you?" So says Michael (Michael Fuith), a thirty-something paedophile, as he stands at the dinner table, knife in hand and penis poking out of his unzipped jeans. Across from him sits ten-year-old captive Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), who responds, without looking up: "The knife." It's the first time something explicit is seen or said in an otherwise restrained film involving paedophilia and child abduction, and it speaks wonders for both characters.

Michael is a single, successful insurance salesman who lives out a meticulous, immaculate day-to-day existence in suburban Austria but for the young lad he keeps locked away in his soundproof  basement, whom he lets out at night only after the electric shutters are fully down. No exposition or backstory is given, or, in fact, needed; how long the boy has been held prisoner doesn't matter. It's the central relationship that counts.

Many critics, no doubt finding it difficult to summarise both the film and their thoughts, stress - as its makers also take pains to do - the ordinariness of this character and his life, as a means of making his deep, dark secret all the more horrific. It's presumably why many reviewers make the unfortunate misstep of seeing the film as a cautionary tale about how we perceive and interact with the unassuming man next door. (If that were the case, the film would be reducible to propaganda; how these people could champion the film without recognising, in turn, the reactionary implications of both the film and their response, is anyone's guess.)

Michael brings with it legitimate but probably overpowering associations: first-time writer-director Markus Schleinzer's recognition as "Michael Haneke's casting director" causes unavoidable comparisons; Schleinzer also follows contemporaries such as Jessica Hausner and Ulrich Seidl; and the film's chosen subject matter seems endemic to its country of origin, made in the wake of the media attention garnered for Austria by the Natascha Kampusch and Josef Fritzl cases. As if things weren't challening enough.

Schleinzer seems content to continue the stylistic refrain of those preceding him. Bressonian in its fragmentation of a daily routine, Michael's aesthetic is clinical and detached, which lends proceedings a genuine unease - a natural unease inherent in the material, and then a deeper, self-conscious unease as we find ourselves conceding to the token positives present in the characters' dynamic. But it's just these latter elements that allow Schleinzer to distinguish himself from the traditions and expectations laid out for him by others. The film's complexities aren't so much a result of open-ended ambiguity as concurrent truths.

All-too-aware of the potential twists contained in a relationship of this sort, Schleinzer withholds information that might give it a concrete temporality. Indeed, through editorial precision, the film details the banalities of its unthinkable scenario whilst accumulating a suspense without our knowing. When Michael is hospitalised after a skiing accident, for instance, there's a tension between concern for the boy prisoner back home and a sympathy for the injured man as he lies there without visitors. The loneliness of his existence is clear enough.

But details counter other details. As well as enjoying a vacation, for instance, Michael is visited by his sister, and receives the attentions of a colleague's relative. Likewise, scenes in which Wolfgang cries with his back to the camera are followed almost immediately by him sharing kitchen space with his captor, washing the dishes after dinner in a relative kind of wordless, temporary harmony. Without excusing the horrors of child abduction, Michael evokes a necessarily complicated reading of its central adult.

Whether or not paedophilia, as a psychological disorder, can be accounted for socially remains to be seen. Those scenes depicting Michael's work life are acknowledged in - and also perhaps determine - the domestic fabric, though it's unclear whether or not there are material or allegorical implications between the two. Though Schleinzer borrows from the real stories of his nation's media, he doesn't seem interested in assessing them in social terms. More convincing is the suggestion put forth that Michael is in mental terms a child himself, trying out lines from trashy late-night television on a real child, only to be rebuked by the youngster, whose abuse has conditioned him into an all-too-premature knowledge of the world's evils.

As such, the film concentrates instead on a chilling and nuanced portrayal of the physical and mental power relations between captive and prisoner.