The ‘banality of evil’ hypothesises that through the thoughtlessness and blind obedience of ordinary people, appalling acts of evil can become normalised, even routine. It is a phrase that is illustrated with dispassionate austerity in Markus Schleinzer’s Michael. Following the life of a paedophile who has imprisoned a 10-year-old boy in his basement, the first-time director has not shied away from controversy. Michael is troubling and inevitably will be too much for some, but does it tackle its incendiary subject with any sensitivity or artistic merit? With a film such as this, two questions are crucial: how was it made, and why was it made?
Inspired by the Fritzl and Kampusch cases, Michael shows what happens long after a child abduction story no longer makes the news. When the parents have all but given up any hope of ever finding their child; when the child abductor has gotten away with their horrific crime; when the horror of their actions has now blurred into the mundane “normalcy” of their everyday life…that is when we first meet the titular Michael (Michael Fuith).
He drives home from work, unloads the shopping, closes the metal blinds, makes a simple meal and lays the table for two with meticulous precision. In fact, his whole house is spotless and tidied with fastidious care. He opens the door to the basement and its thick, sound-proof padding is revealed. A heavy, deadlocked door at the bottom of the stairs is opened but nothing can be seen through the utter darkness. Slowly, a young blond boy (David Rauchenberger) emerges from his pitch-black prison cell and Michael leads him upstairs for dinner.
The felonious Michael is meek, unsociable but troublingly average looking. He works in an office – ironically his job is selling insurance – and he can chat amiably with his neighbours and goes away on skiing trips, after supplying the boy with enough food to last. He also has a family that are supportive, caring and oblivious to his secret. He leads a duplicitous life; he keeps a coded diary of his sexual abuses and the viewers never find out how long he has kept the boy captive. The only clue: at Christmas he snaps, “Why don’t you fetch the decorations for once?” begging the question, how many Christmases have there been?
The boy – his name is Wolfgang but that does not become known until the end credits – spends nearly all his time in his basement cell. Either in total darkness or living with the interminable hum of the lighting, he spends his days muttering to himself, writing letters to his parents (Michael promises to send them on), or heating up noodles using his kettle. His cell is made to look something like a bedroom (complete with mini-kitchen, toilet, desk and a bed), but the clinically white walls, sickly fluorescent lighting and permanently locked metal door never lets him forget where he is. There are moments spent with Michael which begin to resemble a paternal relationship, whether washing up, watching television or even a risky trip to a zoo, but the reality is never far away. Michael is a pederast and Wolfgang is his victim…
It is important to say that the aforementioned scenes contain nothing explicit. We see Michael before and after the acts of abuse, so we are in no doubt about what is happening, but the camera always cuts away. The one moment of graphic nudity was carefully staged: it still comes as a shock but becomes so prurient and darkly comic that its impact is mollified. They are, of course, still highly tense and incomprehensible – and made worse by the cleanliness and domesticity of the setting – but the film avoids any hint of sensationalism, instead exhibiting restraint, ambiguity and a refusal either to pass judgement or delve into Michael’s psyche. We are mere observers to this man’s secret life. Schleinzer has worked regularly as casting director to Michael Haneke and his influence is clear throughout Michael. Like in Funny Games, the viewer is admonished for even watching the film.
Despite Haneke’s influence, including his 1989 film The Seventh Continent, and a surprisingly balanced portrayal of a truly disturbing topic, Michael is disappointingly mundane. It is made competently and successfully depicts Michael as having a shred of humanity while never being sympathetic. Praise has to go to Fuith for a dour turn: perpetually inexpressive, he succeeds in a challenging role. He combines a sickly disingenuous tenderness, brutally sharp intimidation and a childishness that belies his monstrous actions. He is introverted at work, although he does get promoted, but a quiet beast at home. The two collide when a female co-worker visits unannounced; he loses control and literally throws her out.
Michael is undoubtedly disquieting and uncomfortable.
Schleinzer’s choice, however, to focus on the everyday monotony of Michael’s situation means that the film is a series of events, incidents and moments rather than a coherent narrative. Michael’s quotidian chores are punctuated by scenes that increase the tension or terror, but are quickly cast aside. When Wolfgang becomes ill, Michael hurries to a wood to dig a hole. We are left to presume that it is a grave for an easy burial, but it is quickly dismissed and left unexplained because immediately after that Michael is hit with a car and hospitalised. He is only in hospital a short while – his longest conversation is buying a newspaper – before he is back to his home. Nearly every single shot in Michael is cut off, leaving only fragments of events. It is highly effective in places, but excruciatingly frustrating in others.
When it is effective, we see Michael constructing a bunk bed in Wolfgang’s cell, immediately setting off alarms for the viewer, only to cut away to him wandering around a go-kart track trying to lure another boy into his trap. When it is ineffective, though, the film loses structure. The skiing trip shows Michael’s quick temper and shows him having a one-night stand with a barmaid (albeit a pathetic attempt), but it is perfunctory. Such fugacious scenes puncture the effectiveness of the drama. If the drama is too tense, awkward or uncomfortable, just wait sixty seconds and it will move on.
Michael is undoubtedly disquieting and uncomfortable but falls short of other films portraying paedophilia, including Happiness and Hard Candy. The use of sound is the one exquisite feature in Michael: every time he unlocks the door to Wolfgang’s room, we hear every clunking, grinding movement of the locks. With no soundtrack, each noise becomes a piece of cinematic punctuation. Michael, however, fails to really say anything more substantial beyond its challenging topic. It may even suffer from being too clinical, too balanced, too distanced… The bathos evident throughout the film thankfully does not detract from its capricious conclusion and a striking last shot which, true to form, cuts away. This is one of the effective ones, though.
To return to how and why Michael was made. It is composed, competently executed and with a strong lead performance. It suffers from its extended shots being cut too often and the narrative struggles to remain coherent. So why was it made? It seems that it only exists to test viewers. Of course, we should be horrified by the plot and, of course, we should all declare Michael as being vile, repugnant and evil, but it is difficult to see a motive behind Schleinzer’s film other than to court controversy. So, it is confusing that it fails to be as bleak, as uncomfortable or as affecting as it really should be. Michael, the man, is a monster. Michael, the film, is a sleeping monster.
Film: Tetsuo: The Iron Man Release date: 22nd April
2002 Certificate: 18 Running time: 67 mins Director:…
Film: Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame Release date:
10th November 2008 Certificate: PG Running time: 73…
Following the success of The Killing on BBC Four, it
seems Britain can’t get enough of Danish drama as…