Michael (2011): Markus Schleinzer’s Creepy, Absorbing Tale of Pederast (Cannes Fest)

A creepily absorbing debut feature by Markus Schleinzer about the psychological warfare played out between a pederast and his 10-year-old captive, Michael is a direct descendant of the school of Michael Haneke.

The film world premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest.

Haneke, the Austrian provocateur, is best known for his visually precise, controlling studies of aberrant social behavior and dark sexual mores in movies like “Benny’s Video” and “Funny Games.”

 Born in Vienna, Schleinzer worked as casting director on many significant Austrian and German titles, including key Haneke works “The Piano Teacher” and the Cannes Palme laureate “The White Ribbon,” where his specialty was working with young performers.

Schleinzer wrote and directed the chilling, anti-humanist parable about the thin veneer between normalcy and depravity. The entire work is expertly held together by a monstrously cool and disturbing performance by the talented Michael Fuith as the eponymous lead.

The story has been shorn to its nasty particulars. Schleinzer is especially effective at creating mood and a profound sense of disturbance by cannily withholding critical details and in some cases, rupturing expositional detail completely to fully conjure the sinister atmosphere seeped in a dead-eye calm and numbing amorality. (The man knows how to work a soundtrack of industrial noise.)

Schleinzer locates a sinister charge in the most quotidian of movements, like the eerie opening of a car garage door jutting upward, leading into a dispassionate, sterile suburban coach house. Incarnated by Fuith, Michael is defined by a certain blankness. In his mid-thirties, Michael is physically unprepossessing man of no apparent distinction, prematurely balding, thick in the middle. He leads an apparently desultory, sad-eyed existence that consists primarily of eating in his darkened home in front of the evening news.

The dynamics change moments later when Michael, having slipped down into his basement, or “dungeon,” if you prefer, carefully slides back the lock of a heavily fortified cellar door that once cracked, reveals a darkened interior. Seconds later, Michael barks out a command and stunningly out walks a dazed and confused young boy, ten-year-old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger).

 The boy, shell shocked, meekly submits to the older man‘s instructions, the first indication of a deranged master and slave relationship that Michael carries out with a clinical resolve. Schleinzer omits several key details, how the abduction occurred or the precise duration of the captivity. To his credit, a quality that only intensifies the unease, Schleinzer shows how the bland and apparently unthreatening Michael insinuates himself on his prey, with dexterity and skill, during a disturbing sequence set further into the film.

Like Peter Lorre’s deranged child killer in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M, Michael deploys a combination of tenderness and empathy, striking up a conversation with a young boy at a go-kart track, showing just the right amount of interest and affection before swinging his trap.

 To his credit, Fuith makes no effort to humanize this monster. The movie’s subtitle might very well read, “Anatomy of a Psychopath,” because Michael trades on his very blankness and social invisibility to camouflage his intent and build a strange rapport with his young prey. Michael draws out the boy’s isolation, promising a visit by another young friend, in order to break down his resolve.

Michael is pathetic and controlling, but Schleinzer is smart and discreet enough (unlike Haneke at his most egregious) to not overemphasize the horrible deeds perpetrated against the boy without wallowing in it. At the same time, he suggests a highly persuasive account of how Michael, through his cajoling and manipulation, is able to gain the boy’s sympathy and trust, like a surreal interlude where he takes the boy on a walk and the two encounter other fathers accompanying their own children of comparable ages.

At times, Schleinzer withholds too much, or suspends the emotional plausibility in a manner that weakens his conceit, such as the hard difficulty in believing that neither Michael’s mother (Christine Kain) nor sister (Ursula Strauss) are completely unaware or wholly indifferent to his developing pathology.

Michael is socially inept and incapable of carrying out a healthy interpersonal relationships, points carried out during a ski holiday with a couple of buddies where he somewhat improbably picks up an attractive waitress. “Any problems,” she wonders, during his fumbling about in trying to satisfy her sexually.

“Michael” progresses coolly and dispassionately from the shock of the original dramatic revelation to the seemingly implacable way Michael carries out his brutal behavior, unfazed by a serious car accident or an awkward discovery by a colleague at the insurance firm where his steady competence has suddenly accelerated his own corporate climb.

 The movie turns on a Hitchcockian twist in which the most vulnerable find a way to gain at some ground through their own intelligence and survival skills. The most chilling moment in the film occurs when Michael, who’s so unoriginal he poses a question to his captive he learned from a violent movie, the boy disarmingly and quickly announces he’d rather be knifed than sodomized.

 The movie’s final 20 minutes pivots on a remarkable chain of events that intensify the eerie suspension. In “Michael,” the banal and the terrifying exist side by side.

“Michael” is never easy to watch in the traditional sense, but it demonstrates a lean and purposeful talent.

The movie poses some disturbing questions and gains a unsettling power by simply being. What it has to say is not easily forgotten, and neither is this challenging work.