With echoes of Michael Haneke, the Austrian master’s casting director Markus Schleinzer has us on a knife-edge with his paedophilia drama Michael.
Behind Closed Doors by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It speaks volumes about our cinematic viewing habits that a good ending is accompanied by an overwhelming need for justice. And it’s with a sense of outrage that Markus Schleinzer’s Fritzl-style kid-in-the-basement drama comes to a close. Not so much missing the fragile sense of liberation, with which Frédéric Videau’s own captivity tale A Moi Seule ends, but rather a lack of closure, which bears a bleakness entirely in the Austrian tradition.
In terms of cinematic landscapes, there’s perhaps nowhere more casually terrifying than Austria. Albeit often filmed in French, Michael Haneke’s attitude to the class arrogance and suppressed violence of the homeland seems to have paved the way for his filmmaking compatriots, his chilling sense of foreboding seep into every film. Like Jessica Hausner’s oeuvre, Michael portrays a brittle, dark humanity where grey surfaces hide miracles, or in this case, paedophiles. And it’s a trend towards abstraction present in the camerawork, with characters moving into camera positions, spaces dominated by the filmmaker’s all-seeing eye. Where the camera is king and must be obeyed.
To begin with, you might question whose story Michael belongs to, as an unnamed thirty-something insurance broker shelters and feeds an unnamed boy locked in a small room in his cellar. You might even question his motivation, as he lowers the blinds and sets the table for a meal for two; paternal feeling, desperate loneliness, power play or sexual arousal? But soon, with a cut from Michael walking into the boy’s cell to washing his penis in the bathroom sink, it’s all too clear what his reasons are. The threat of abuse hangs over the film, intoned in the hum of the cell’s fluorescent lights. Privy to the goings on behind closed doors, there’s an unshakable feeling of foreboding, only to be resolved with prison or death.
While other films on paedophilia, like The Woodsman, focus on suburban neighbourhoods under threat from a prowler, Michael is on the inside looking out. It’s a tough subject for a filmmaker – too unfathomable for audiences to empathise, too restrained to pierce the taboo. But Schleinzel’s matter-of-fact approach fits perfectly, not even daring to enter into psychology and focusing instead on Michael’s thrill at being promoted, his porn-inspired humour and rough paternalism – the telescope scene feels more like a comment on the gruff relationships between fathers and sons than the power tussle of captive and warden.
Perhaps unsurprising for a film directed by Michael Haneke’s casting director, Michael Fuith is perfectly cast as the outwardly normal criminal misfit amongst us. His lifeless, contemptuous gaze as he surveys his neighbourhood for busybodies, or the desperate bluster with which he throws intruder X out onto the street and through the garage door, are truly chilling. His sudden temper is echoed in the editing, flaring into a rage with the boy before sweetly singing Stille Nacht together by the Christmas tree. And his attempts to care for the boy during his sickness, by wrapping his feet in wet cloths, seem to sum up his backward confusion of abusive love.
Michael himself is like a boy, trapped inside a man’s body and adult responsibilities, guffawing at his one-sided snowball fight, but the perverse inequality of the relationship strives against them being friends, with Michael resorting all too easily to just closing the door. Wolfgang’s desperate unhappiness couldn’t be clearer than when, asked by Michael whether he’d prefer to be gored with his cock or a knife, his deadpan retort disturbingly reveals his ardent wish to die. And while the boy is fed a steady diet of lies about his parents, both of them numb the pain of existence with TV, the opium of the masses, until a conscience-pricking report on missing children puts Michael in a remote-control-zapping tizz. The skiing escapade verges on the unnecessary, confirming what we already know about the friendless, socially inept Michael, unable to have normal, or even vaguely romantic, sex with a woman. But it does reveal the astonishing ease with which Michael can go away, leaving the young Wolfgang to both feed and raise himself.
Schleinzer is fascinated with the tension of the abandoned captive, and he uses it three times, with Michael’s stay in hospital after being hit by a car, his skiing trip and finally, his death in a car crash. And while Michael’s family prepare for his funeral, the boy goes unseen in his cell, the tension of Michael’s mother finally finding him dead or alive redoubled with the tension of uncovering her son’s secrets. The final cut as she opens the door to the boy’s cell is a coup de theatre, albeit a rather unsatisfying one. Words fly up to heaven, but Michael’s death doesn’t seem like enough, when the boy’s fate is unknown and the truth still hidden. Does Michael deserve such a respectful ending, his reputation as yet unharmed? And when our sense of story is structured around Michael’s abuse of the boy, surely we deserve to know whether he lives or not?
It’s a dark, lifeless, loveless world, and Markus Schleinzer’s Michael is a harrowing and chilling experience. Boney M’s Sunny might lend an upbeat tempo to the rolling credits – but the dark days have gone and the bright days are most certainly not yet here.
Michael is released on 2nd March 2012 in the UK