When any filmmaker elects to study a topic as tempestuous and taboo as paedophilia then it absolutely must be handled with the upmost delicacy and pertinence in its intensions. There are many films that have tackled this despicably subversive issue before to varying extents; notable examples including Lolita, Happiness and The Woodsman. Despite the acclaim that these films received for the themes they divulged, never have I seen such a clinical and disturbingly methodical portrait of child-molestation than in Markus Schleinzer’s debut, Michael. 

This Austrian slow-burner provides an insight into the life of a sociopathic insurance agent named Michael (Michael Fuith) who has kidnapped and incarcerated an ill ten year old boy named Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) in his customised, sound-proofed basement to fulfil his inexplicably nihilistic urges in fashion not too dissimilar from his real-life national counterpart, Josef Fritzl. 

Aside from enduring bouts of perverse systematic abuse, Wolfgang’s days often consist of eating the same sloppy ready meals, drawing pictures in limited hours of allotted light and, on occasion, being afforded the sparse privilege of going out in the countryside where he is cruelly exposed to the normalcy of other children contented with their families, whilst he is held in an almost literal vice grip of oppression as Michael grasps the back of his neck to assert an overwhelmingly dictatorial control. 

Although Michael is Schleinzer’s debut feature he has spent many years in the film industry in the capacity of a casting director for some of Austria’s most (in)famous cinematic exports; not least many of Michael Haneke’s most revered works, including The Piano Teacher, Time Of The Wolf and the Palme d’Or winning The White Ribbon. 

If you’re familiar with Haneke’s cinematic portfolio then it will be all too apparent that Schleinzer is, or has been, a collaborator of the old Austrian master because the bleak stylisation, slow deployment of real-time cinema, and the socio-political infrastructure of the film are distinctively derivative of Haneke’s approach. Subsequently, it is a thematically arresting yet highly accomplished film. 

Having supplied Haneke with actors who have gone on to portray some of the most socially divergent weirdos and oddballs around it is no surprise that Schleinzer managed to find and utilise the unassuming facade of Michael Fuith to great effect in his performance as the reclusive abuser. He manages to bring a real banal authenticity to the role that he is assuming and this is where the real horror of the film is engendered.

 The scenes of molestation in the film are kept implicit throughout, which actually provides a much more sinister and macabre examination of paedophilia than if the incidents of abuse were viscerally demonstrated on screen. There is a sequence where Michael and Wolfgang are nonchalantly assembling a bunk-bed in the basement, which acts as a sickening foreboding that he is preparing the space for a new victim; or as he advertises it to Wolfgang, someone to come round and play with. 

In terms of production values, the film adopts the seemingly prerequisite drab art-house aesthetic that we see in many Austrian productions and the use of high-key naturalistic light throughout most of the film works harmoniously with the cinematography to deliver a chillingly believable account of calculated child-abuse. 

There are many steady-cam shots and still framing that really emphasise the systematic mundanity of Michael’s life and just how disturbing that is given his recreational iniquity. Although tracking shots are rare in the film, the use of a moving camera in the final scene of the film is as insidious and suspenseful as you’ll see in even some of the most captivating and terrifying horror films. 

It has to be said that despite the overt themes of immorality present in the film there are a few moments of really pitch-black humour that, perhaps ashamedly, made me laugh out loud with discomfort in the cinema to both the disgust of my fellow cinema goers and myself. But that’s what’s so enthralling about this film: it raises a lot of questions and conflicts in the viewer that you can’t just shunt to the back of your mind. Despite these sporadic excerpts of dark comedy dispersed throughout the film, they do little to appease the unrelentingly morose and abject themes being probed. 

As far as debuts go, Michael is a distinctive and provocative piece of pure cinema that demonstrates the finesse and potential Schleinzer possesses in his repertoire. It perhaps lacks the pervasive depth and satirical prevalence that is so often captured in the films of Michael Haneke but there is already a sense of clinical refinement which suggests that Schleinzer could be on the cusp of an acclaimed career as a director. It certainly won’t be the most comfortable film you’ll ever watch, but if you want a dose of European filmmaking prowess regarding a difficult subject then, hazardously, introduce yourself to Michael.

About The Author

Ross is a Screen Studies graduate from Manchester who can be found beaming with joy rather than wincing with discomfort at cinema's oddest, most experimental and depraved offerings.