Markus Schleinzer, 2011
In less capable hands, MICHAEL could have been a torturously unpleasant experience, but writer-director Markus Schleinzer handles his potentially contentious subject matter with great judgement and sensitivity. The time spent working on (and obviously giving much consideration to) the films of Michael Haneke has served him well.
The work of Ulrich Siedl is another touchstone, as are some of the Berlin School directors, such as Valeska Grisebach’s excellent Longing (2006), with which Michael shares a similarly understated reserve. Schleinzer depicts the neatly ordered world of his titular protagonist with a matter-of-fact, quietly unsettling sense of everyday dysfunctionality. Michael is an unassuming office worker who avoids relationships with co-workers and family alike. But in the underground basement of his equally unassuming suburban home, ten-year old Wolfgang is locked in a sound-proofed, windowless room, abducted and held captive in order to satisfy Michael’s various needs (subtly implied, never shown).
For much of the film we anticipate Wolfgang’s imminent escape (willing him to pick up the hammer or bolt for the door), during which time Schleinzer gives us ample opportunity to consider the societal conditions that foster the Michaels of this world. Of course, there are no pat answers, and the perceptions that arise from the film make it clear that Michael is not really about paedophilia, the story being one of many potential expressions of societal dysfunction. In this respect, Michael can be seen as a reiteration of thematic threads that go back to the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, particularly their superb Not Reconciled (1965), in which they assert that German fascism did not begin and end with the rise and fall of Nazism – those seeds were sewn long ago, and they continue to flourish today. Michael Haneke explores similar ideas in all of his films of course, but especially in The White Ribbon (Das weisse band, 2009).
Such themes are central to the work of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl too, and like them, Schleinzer suggests that culpability is not only shared by society, but perpetuated (if not tacitly condoned) through guilt and denial, and the frequently well-meaning (but often not) intentions and precepts of social authorities such as the church, councils, and corporations. And then, of course, there is apathy.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader