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Michael

Michael

By Ben Nicholson • June 3rd, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
MICHAEL (DVD)
Artificial Eye

Release date: May 28th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 18
Running time: 96 minutes

Country of origin: Austria
Original language: German with English subtitles

Writer and director: Markus Schleinzer

Cast: Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger

People have very different reasons for going to the cinema or curling up with a movie. For some (most) it’s pure escapism. Sometimes we’re looking to be excited, sometimes scared, and sometimes challenged; we want to laugh, we want to scream and we want to cry.

Sometimes we want something other than escapism, we want something true to life or thought-provoking, even if it doesn’t excite us, or emotionally engage us. Michael is very much an example of a film that doesn’t engage our emotions (and doesn’t try to) and it’s most certainly thought-provoking, though I’m not sure what questions it’s really attempting to raise.

The plot is minimal although the set-up is vital. The film follows the mundane and workaday life of Austrian insurance salesman Michael (Michael Fuith). As it opens, we see him arrive home from work, cook dinner listening to the news on the television and lay the table. We then see him open the door down to the cellar which has been sound-proofed.

Michael

On arriving at the foot of the stairs he turns the lock on a substantially barred door and eases it open to reveal a pitch black room, he waits a few seconds and says “Come on.” A few more seconds pass before a slightly irritated, “Come on!” and then a young boy emerges from the black. The film then watches the everyday life of Michael and his captive, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), which verges on a, albeit icy cold, father-son relationship except that this is punctuated with midnight visits to Wolfgang’s room to abuse him.

As you can imagine, this is not Saturday evening or Orange Wednesday viewing. It’s not for those hoping to go to the cinema for 90 minutes of escapism. Michael is a very tough watch and although there is no on-screen abuse, it’s implied effectively enough to make your stomach churn.

The most striking thing about it is its detachment and monotony. We observe what’s happening and although the action is largely seen from Michael’s point of view, or at least over his shoulder, we never feel any kind of emotional connection with either of the characters. We see Wolfgang upset with Michael on a number of occasions and lashing out at him, we see his reaction to Wolfgang taunting him, but we don’t empathise with either character particularly. That’s not to say we don’t side entirely with Wolfgang and wish an end to his torture and a return to his family, but that’s through his circumstances rather than due to a connection with Wolfgang himself as a character.

We get an unerring look at the methodical nature of our central character in living a normal, if solitary, life whilst keeping the boy imprisoned but healthy. We see how he caters for Wolfgang if he is going away for a few days, we see the logistics of taking him out for an excruciating day at the zoo or how Christmas works in their household. MichaelWe even see, when Wolgang falls ill, Michael’s preparations for disposing of the body – though whether this is a plan to kill him or in case he were to die of sickness is unclear.

All of this makes for horribly uneasy viewing and the detachment is amplified by the cinematography, shot in icy blue tones and at angles that dare not show us what’s happening around the corner.

The performances from both Fuith and Rauchenberger are very well pitched and although they may not give us an emotional hook, this is not the film’s intention and so you cannot criticise the cast. Fuith gives a horrible portrayal of this seemingly empty and remorseless man whilst also giving us the couple of moments where he shows fear at the uncertainty of how things will end – a Christmas card from Wolfgang showing them both grown up reminds him of their relationship’s obvious conclusion.

A lot has been made of the fact that the director, Markus Schleinzer, is Michael Haneke’s go-to casting director and there are suggestions from many that Michael shares many features with the Austrian auteur’s style and its unremitting handling of a tough subject matter. MichaelHowever, by comparing Michael to these other films I think that people have successfully indicated what stops this film reaching the heights that it in theory could.

Haneke prides himself on lecturing his audience and when you are forced to watch the relentless psychological abuse and violence of something like Funny Games, you are made very much aware of why you are watching this, and why the fact that you haven’t turned off the film is playing into the director’s plan. With Michael I just found that I don’t see the why of the piece.

Some have stated it’s a comment on the banality of evil and there’s the possibility that in juxtaposing Michael’s public life to what he keeps in his basement it shows the secrets of what may go on behind closed doors. However with a subject that inspires such a vigorous reaction, it feels that if Schleinzer was going to tackle it, he needed to have something to say about it. MichaelInstead, the only discernible message seems to be that anyone could be a paedophile, you just don’t know.

I’m not one for stating every film must have an agenda, or be trying to teach us something, but this seems like a pretty flimsy backbone for a film that spends most of its run-time showing us the systematic abuse of a young boy both physically and mentally. There have also been other ideas put forward, for instance in Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian, that the film is a satire on single parenthood or that it is about Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps on further viewings these might become apparent but they do not equate to how I read the film on the first viewing and I doubt many people will fancy a second particularly.

There is also the question which was raised by my girlfriend after the film of whether portraying such a character in such a cold light exemplifies them as the bogeyman rather than making an attempt to humanise them and thus see them as damaged people regardless of how monstrous their actions. When compared to something like 2005’s The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon, this feels that it’s perhaps propagating the myths and is possibly less effective because of it. Of course, this could all just be my reading and other people may find more to work with in the subtleties of the characters.

Ultimately, the film is chilling, very well put together and will certainly spark debate, and has been going around in my head since seeing it. However whilst it may start the conversation, I didn’t feel that said anything new and considering the subject matter and the style, I think it could have used a stronger thesis behind it.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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