Of all the disciples of a well-known international filmmaker, I’d be least inclined to watch one by a descendant of Michael Haneke, the Austrian provocateur best-known for his visually precise and controlling studies of aberrant social behavior like Benny’s Video and Funny Games.
Having said that, I found Michael, the debut of Markus Schleinzer about the psychological warfare played out between a pederast and his ten-year-old captive, creepily absorbing as opposed to annihilating and self-negating, the way I do much of Haneke (with some exceptions, mostly notably his debut feature, The Seventh Continent and his previous work, the Palme laureate The White Ribbon).
Born in Vienna, Schleinzer has worked as a casting director on many significant Austrian and German titles, including key Haneke works The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon. 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 distilled 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 in conjuring a 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, the child 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. Possessing a quality that only intensifies the film’s 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.
Fuith’s performance is not only emotionally credible though striking and unsettling in his willful refusal 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 wallow in the horrible deeds perpetrated against the boy. At the same time, the director 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.
At times, Schleinzer withholds too much, or suspends the emotional plausibility in a manner that weakens the material, like the hard difficulty in believing that neither his mother (Christine Kain) nor sister (Ursula Strauss) are 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 the protagonist carries out his brutal behavior, unfazed by a serious incident 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 counterattack through their own intelligence, resilience and finely-honed 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.
In Michael, the banal and the terrifying exist side by side.
Haneke offered a disarming and unfortunate illustration of how talent is nullified without a corresponding discerning or open sensibility. Whether Schleinzer has more than one idea up his sleeve remains to be seen. Michael is rarely easy to watch in the traditional sense. The movie demonstrates a lean and purposeful talent. Michael poses a lot of disturbing questions and gains a disturbing power by simply being. What it has to say is not easily forgotten. Neither is this challenging and disturbing work.