Monday, February 13, 2012

Markus Schleinzer's MICHAEL tracks the daily life of a pedophile (and his victim)

I'm not sure what is the purpose of MICHAEL, the new film from Austrian-born Markus Schleinzer, who began his career as an actor then became a noted casting director and has recently completed this first film as writer and director. Michael tracks daily life -- at home, at work, and at play (if you can call it that) and with family -- of a pedophile who has locked in his very sealed-off basement a young boy whom he has kidnapped and now keeps for his sexual and companionable pleasure. Rather than giving us the expected jolts of heavy-duty scenes of sex, torture, pain or even shame, the movie is content to simply observe. This method results in a number of strong points, as well as in some weak ones.

By focusing equally on these day-to-day-activities, without giving us any extra information about any of them, Schleinzer, shown as right, resists anything like melodrama (or even much drama, really) while, in his selection of exactly which activities to show us, makes certain that we see nothing that might turn us on. For instance, we see Michael, the pedo-phile, washing his penis either pre-sex or post, but we never see anything of the sex itself. Further, because Michael is played by the least visually imposing actor you can imagine (the aptly-named Michael Fuith, shown below), who manages to show, from his first to his final frame, as little emotion as possible, this ensures that our identification with him is kept to the bare minimum.

This is even true to a large extent as concerns Michael's trapped boy, Wolfgang, played quite well by young newcomer David Rauchenberger. There appears to be some slight bonding going on between the two, but when Wolfgang grows ill, Michael is quick to drive to a deserted spot in the country and dig a grave -- just in case it might be needed. (This is my interpretation of what happens, at least; Schleinzer gives us few clues in any other direction.)

Along the way, numerous questions cropped up for me, often in the form of song titles: How Long Has This Been Going On? (we never learn the answer, nor do we know if Wolfgang is Michael's first abduction) and Where Is Love? (nowhere to be found; Michael would seem to be incapable of it, though it might rear its head for Wolfgang over time). The two share mealtimes, take an outing or two together (risky, it would seem, but these outings probably do not take place in any nearby town), and engage in games of a sort (one may remind you of Where the Wild Things Are), including the puzzle below.

The movie keeps us, from first to last, at quite a distance, even though we do feel for young Wolfgang. Michael is beyond help, it seems to me: a quiet, unfeeling monster the world would be better off without. Suspense builds during the final half-hour, when an "event" or two (and their aftermath) take place. Even then, and for all the suspense that the final few minutes muster, as writer and director, Schleinzer prefers to withhold any kind of real closure or sustenance from his audience. It's as though we're at the point in Sarah's Key -- the actual and real climax of that movie, in which Sarah is about to learn what has happened to the child in question -- and then, suddenly, she never finds out.

By ending his film precisely where he does, rather than a mere few moments later -- when the single most important question the audience has been asking will be answered -- Schleinzer raises an unintentional but interesting question: Is this literal disinterest on the part of the movie-maker, or is he being deliberately cruel? Either way Michael is a horror, and Michael, despite its strengths, is a disappointment. The movie, 96 minutes long, and from Strand Releasing, opens in New York City this Wednesday, February 15, at Film Forum (click here for screenings times and other info), and in Los Angeles on Thursday, February 16 at The CineFamily. A further limited release is expected to follow.


Anonymous said...

do u have a download link on this film?

James van Maanen, said...

Do you mean a link where you can see the film illegally? No, Anon -- and you'd better remain Anonymous, if that's what you're looking for. (If I did know of such a link, I certainly would not post it here. I believe in paying -- at least SOMETHING -- for the privilege of viewing somebody else's art!)

Anonymous said...

well, it seems that it is impossible to see the film legally. just because of the system of privileges you mentioned.

James van Maanen said...

I am sorry to hear this follow-up comment, Anon. (I'm assuming both the above Anonymous comments are from the same person.) In what country do you live that you cannot see the film legally? Wherever, that's a shame. I am thinking maybe Mubi ( might have the film, or some other possible streaming link by which you can watch it from your home. Good luck!