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‘Michael’: A Deliberate Study In Horrific Routine

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 16, 2012

The title character of Markus Schleinzer’s Michael lives a meticulous life: good career at an insurance company, well-kept home in some Austrian suburb, a 10-year-old boy held in the basement for sex. All that’s missing is a framed sampler on the wall, hand-stitched with the phrase — in German, of course — “the banality of evil.”

Like its protagonist, Michael is deliberate and very discreet. It shocks by suggestion, not by display. Michael (Michael Fuith) is the sort of guy who smokes only outside the house and rarely loses control, either of himself or of the situation.

The balding, 35-year-old nebbish is a kidnapper and a rapist, but not a torturer or a murderer. He helps his captive, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), clean his well-appointed soundproof cell. Sometimes he even takes the boy on excursions, to a petting zoo or a scenic gorge.

Michael isn’t especially friendly, never invites people to his house, and annually declines his sister’s invitation to spend Christmas with the family. Yet he’s not an outcast; he’s being considered for a promotion, and two co-workers invite him on a ski trip.

Schleinzer, who wrote as well as directed, is a careful type himself. He based Michael on pedophiles he read about in “the yellow press.” After creating the character, he vetted the script with a noted forensic psychologist.

There are a few dramatic developments, some of which briefly boost the tension into thriller territory. The director can cast a chill with the simplest of acts — such as Michael’s purchase of a bunk bed.

But the movie is mostly about routine. When the story begins, Michael and Wolfgang are already used to each other. The boy is by no means happy, but he has learned to live with his plight. The scenario might be comic if it weren’t so disturbing.

There are precedents for Michael, including Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E. (in which a pederast candidly makes the case for his actions) and Todd Solondz’s Happiness (in which child sexual abuse is just part of the general horror of human existence). But those films are probably less significant influences on Schleinzer than his background as a casting director for fellow Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke, who coldly examines the infamy beneath the surface of bourgeois life.

Schleinzer cast Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which also turns on the relationship of corrupt adults and stoic children. That film, like this one, has some gripping moments, but ultimately doesn’t add up.

It’s hard to make a movie about a pederast without being exploitative, and Michael eventually comes to feel like an art house stunt. The director sometimes lurches into cheap irony — as when Michael sings along to Boney M.’s blithe disco-pop “Sunny” — or uses happenstance to dispense moral judgment worthy of a Victorian novel. For all its studious detachment, Michael can’t escape the melodrama inherent in its subject. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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