Hailing from the Michael Haneke school of brutally austere Austrian cinema, Markus Schleinzer’s debut feature, Michael, opens with a revealing bit of misdirection. A thirtysomething insurance salesman (Michael Fuith) comes home with a bag of groceries and quickly sets to work on dinner, frying up some ham and setting up a table for two. He summons a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger), presumably his son, and the two eat quietly, their silence broken only by the kid’s request to watch TV that night. After the two retire for the evening, the true nature of their relationship is revealed in two shots: Fuith leading the boy into his soundproof basement, and later, Fuith washing his genitals in the bathroom sink. Schleinzer doesn’t delay this information as a shock tactic—in fact, the film scrupulously avoids any explicit depiction of sexual abuse—but as part of a meticulous strategy to show the long-term, everyday banalities of evil.
Having served as a casting director for Haneke since 2001’s The Piano Teacher, Schleinzer carries over the same blank, affectless discipline in the face of human cruelty. In some scenes, he shows Fuith at work, manning the phones at his cubicle, politely volleying back his colleagues’ chitchat (he never instigates a conversation), and lobbying for a big promotion. In others, he keeps up appearances with his sister (Christine Kain) and even embarks on a skiing weekend with a couple of friends. Back home, Fuith manages his captive charge with a disturbing mix of tenderness, boyish camaraderie, and, when the situation calls for it, intimidation and violence both emotional and physical.
By devoting his energies so wholly to the mundane dimensions of this monster’s existence, Schleinzer denies all but the faintest suggestions of his internal life. Some of the pedophile’s actions indicate a stunted adolescence, like the two buckets of snow he brings to the basement for a snowball fight, and a failed sexual encounter with a waitress on the ski trip embarrasses his attempt at normalcy. But the clinical approach removes the film from both the hysteria of most depictions of pedophilia and the intimacy of Todd Solondz’s Happiness. It’s a chilling film about the routine business of unspeakable acts.
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