“Michael”: Subversive and sublime…

Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut is a dispassionate portrait of a paedophile (Michael Fuith) and his captive child (David Rauchenberger). In a practically featureless environment, the daily yet distorted routine of this de facto father and son becomes unwillingly etched in the mind as we follow their coldly compelling relationship and everything in between. Even though it’s clearly designed not to entertain, there are still some brilliantly crafted scenes here (to name just three: a predatory encounter at a Go-Kart track, an awkward yet illuminating exchange of Xmas gifts, and a backfired repeat of an obscene film quotation), all of which are infused with a macabre and subversive sense of humour. Such novel fervour even extends to the film’s score: Schleinzer’s choice of Boney M’s “Sunny” certainly surpasses Fincher’s employment of Enya’s “Orinco Flow” in ‘The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo’ with its ironic panache, lingering mood and dark wit.

For every beautifully subversive scene, however, there are plenty featuring such disturbingly reflexive actions as Michael pre-emptively digging a woodland grave for his captive child when he becomes seriously ill. The film is, by no one’s standards, an easy ride: as Schleinzer records one daily task to the next, Michael becomes a solitary figure in clinically framed compositions. Whether he’s cleaning the kitchen, ironing his clothes, or assembling a bunk-bed, his posture is at one with his geometric confines, his inherent compulsions mirroring Schleinzer’s own relentless formalism. This directorial approach serves many purposes: it establishes an impending sense of menace (especially thanks to the ample silence of the soundtrack); it reflects the methodical take on the monotony religiously adhered to by Michael (whenever it’s close to cracking, the camera set-ups become simultaneously less stationary); and it ensures the absence of lurid sensationalism (there’s an early scene in the film of Michael washing his cock in the bathroom sink: we don’t witness the implied rape, but just a single glimpse of the aftermath).

Some critics have complained that such detachment borders on indifference, feeling that ‘Michael’ languishes in grim realism to its own detriment. (Presumably they expected more shocks from such provocative subject matter.) Make no mistake, ‘Michael’ is not ‘The Woodsman’. There’s neither explicit redemption nor regret. It avoids any value-heavy shock-tactics and simplistic explanations, choosing to focus on subtle, clinical observations of character. Schleinzer almost fetishizes the monotonous and thereby creates an atmosphere where you can identify with the unidentifiable (coming eerily close to answering the question, “what makes man a monster: his desires or decisions?”).

Much has been made of Schleinzer’s previous collaborations with Michael Haneke, excessively noting his inspired casting of the children in ‘The White Ribbon’. A better comparison, I think, can be made with ‘The Piano Teacher’: the restless fascination with the underbelly of suburban life, prodding secrets through first-person narratives and thus alleviating any obstacles of judgement. The repeat shots, including the steel blue door being ominously shut and bolted each night, become perversely familiar to us just like Erika Kohut’s sexually digressive interludes in her teaching schedule, emphasizing the warped banality of life and juxtaposing the order of Michael’s daily routine with the conceptual bedlam of his basement secret. Copying Haneke’s signature stylings, the precise and largely static framings convey the emotional isolation of our deeply flawed protagonist and his own sense of confinement, literal and figurative.

Unlike Haneke’s perpetual lecturing, however, it’s entirely left to the audience as to what they believe this cinematic piece is really about (see Peter Bradshaw’s review, uniquely claiming that ‘Michael’ is a satire on single parenthood). For me, it’s an unsparingly intimate exposé of the manifold ways in which an individual can choose to carve a world for themself when little else, thanks to restrictions both tangible and not, is available to them. One thing definitely remains clear-cut, though: ‘Michael’ is an astonishingly assured debut, scalding both in its dark intensity and obscure meaning.

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