Attempting to prove the axiom that you can’t ever really know someone, Michael creeps (all too briefly probably) onto the cinema screen. Michael (Michael Fuith) lives in a nameless Austrian suburb, works a menial job in insurance, strives for promotion, goes on skiing trips with friends, visits his sister, enjoys television and keeps a ten year old boy, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), locked in his basement for sex.
Michael is director Markus Schleinzer’s debut feature. Schleinzer has worked as casting director and acting coach on many, many films, including coaching the child actors on Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon. Obviously influenced by that most enigmatic German director, Schleinzer explore themes familiar in Haneke’s work, namely evil and the deconstruction of the family. Michael’s slow camera movements and ever so slightly leaden pacing also ape Haneke. Choosing paedophilia as the subject for a first film must be considered brave and Schleinzer holds his nerve, never allowing obvious bias to enter or unjustified judgement to be passed.
Fuith’s Michael is a performance of normality expertly executed and totally believable. It may sound obvious but without the knowledge of Michael’s child molestations this film would just be about the every day life of a (very) mundane individual. He’s not socially inept, he even manages to sort of seduce a woman whilst on holiday although the resultant sex is awkward and not at all an experience that either party really enjoys. Michael appears to have no interest in culture, he only watches television, he laughs at an atrocious line from a slasher flick he watches so much that we can assume that Michael’s tastes are pretty unrefined. His attempt to recreate the line at the dinner table with Wolfgang manages to be unpleasant, uncomfortable, uncalled for and heartbreaking, although it is noticeable that even ten year old Wolfgang dismisses the line Michael found so amusing.
If Michael is a satire on the family and it very well might be it is satire of the coldest, darkest stone. The easy father/son dynamic Wolfgang and Michael have developed may be the most chilling part of all. They have routines, wash up together, enjoy television together and argue about bed times. Every facet of family life is here, just with the proviso that sometimes Michael goes into Wolfgang’s room and molests him.
Michael goes at a stately pace for the first hour and a quarter and then accelerates for the last fifteen minutes, very nearly becoming a thriller as a possibly happy conclusion is reached. Michael is also the second film made in 2011 to feature a mother who finds out just what her son is capable of, the other being the superb and somewhat overlooked We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Michael is an intelligent film of an acutely observed life, made on a subject that throws media outlets into fits of hysteria, balanced and as objective as can be when dealing with such a one sided debate (who defends paedophilia after all?). As an audience we are never asked to root for evil, something Hollywood films politely request of us regularly. John Rambo and Hannibal Lector are two sociopathic or psychopathic characters often described as anti-heroes. Michael simply lays out a horrific situation and a criminal man simply, calmly and lucidly and then steps back leaving the audience to do the rest. All credit to Schleinzer.