I originally wrote this review for The Tab in Cambridge, a publication that, on the whole, chewed me up and spat me out, eventually stripping away all the enjoyment I took in writing reviews. However, in the early days, as with this review, I got a great deal of respect from my editor and dear friend Jamie Mathieson, and contributing a review of this fine feature made me incredibly proud.
Of course, it all started when I asked Jamie what films were on that I could review, and as far as I can recall, he suggested two pieces of Hollywood detritus and also Michael, which he mentioned was a difficult film. Not being one to take the easy road, I decided to travel to the Arts Picturehouse and check out this Austrian indie-paedo flick.
When the review was handed in, I had decided to give it four stars, because I had enjoyed the film immensely, yet I knew that it would not be for everyone. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this was indeed a clever film, and one that I could be persuaded to watch again. In hindsight, I wish I had gone the whole hog and given it five stars. But that’s all in the past now, and below, ladies and gentlemen, is the Michael review as it appeared in The Tab in March 2012.
This film is intense. I mean, really intense. In only his first directorial feature, Markus Schleinzer has crafted a brilliant and unsettling thriller, and I’m rather worried that I’m going to be having nightmares about this film for evenings to come.
Michael, set in Austria, revolves around two characters: Michael (Michael Fuith), a paedophile, who keeps ten-year-old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) locked away in his soundproofed basement. This is an uneasy premise for a film, especially given Austria’s recent history, so it’s refreshing to see a writer who has the guts to defy expectation. But guts is not all Schleinzer has: there’s plenty of skill here too.
Allow me to introduce our characters. Michael is an utter prick. A heartless automaton for the majority of the film, there are only a few moments when he displays any emotion. Luckily, Schleinzer doesn’t try to create pathos towards our main character, and we can inwardly boo every time he appears on screen.
Wolfgang, on the other hand, is a sorry soul. How he was brought to the dungeon, and how long he has been there, we can only guess, although a plot device later hints at how his capture might have transpired. Utterly helpless, he is generally co-operative with Michael, and only occasionally lashes out, always totally in vain.
During the film, we cut between scenes of Michael in his ‘normal life’ and scenes where he is with Wolfgang. At work, Michael is the most boring person imaginable; a complete introvert. At home, after closing the metal blinds on his windows, Michael will allow his captive to come upstairs and eat dinner or watch television, always under his supervision. Inevitably, we’re shown many horrible shots of Wolfgang heading back to his cell, and being locked away.
Schleinzer takes his time. There are many thirty-second shots of Michael simply looking ahead or thinking, allowing the viewer to contemplate what they’ve just seen. These scenes aren’t merely filler: usually we can comprehend what he was pondering by the next shot. Better still, sometimes these shots aren’t what they appear to be at first, with something unexpected happening midway through: Schleinzer likes to keep us guessing.
Surprisingly, the most shocking scenes in the film are not the ones that allude to paedophilia, and those scenes are kept to a tactful minimum.
For example, take the scene where Wolfgang is shown writing a letter when he is suddenly and unexpectedly plunged into total darkness. A few seconds later, he switches on a torch, and continues writing the letter, clearly accustomed to having Michael turning off the electricity in the room whenever he pleases. This film has dozens of such brilliant and harrowing scenes, keeping the audience on their toes at all times. There’s even a couple of laughs thrown in.
Naturally, this isn’t a film for everybody, but if you can stand watching a child molester for 96 minutes, I wholeheartedly recommend this carefully-wrought thriller. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.