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by Eric Kohn
May 14, 2011 5:50 AM
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CANNES REVIEW | Markus Schleinzer's "Michael" Puts a Pedophile in Uneasy Focus

Markus Schleinzer's "Michael."

Markus Schleinzer's "Michael" is a triumph of uneasy cinema: Not since Todd Solondz's "Happiness" has a movie portrayed pedophilia in such uncomfortable detail. With an unorthodox level of restraint, the Austrian director tells the story of a dull office drone who keeps a kidnapped young boy locked in his house, where he continually subjects the child to sexual abuse. Despite its subversive edge, "Michael" successfully drains the shock out of a frightening premise and instead delivers a keen observational thriller.

From its opening minutes, "Michael" reveals its alarming plot with a patient, naturalistic atmosphere. The title character (Michael Fuith) arrives at his quaint suburban home in Austria after a long day at work, opens his basement door and calls out to the darkness. The child, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), slowly emerges from the shadows on cue. After a brief dinner, they spend the evening together watching television before vanishing back into the dreaded lair. As the title card rolls, Schleinzer establishes both the tone of his quiet drama and its utterly sinister content, a challenging prospect that surprisingly fits together.

Schleinzer never fully establishes the entire context of Michael's misdeed--when and how the kidnapping happened, not to mention whether or not Michael has tried it before with other children. Instead, Schleinzer dwells in the gradual tic-toc of Michael's world, the reality of his home life that he hides from his co-workers, and the insular routine that Wolfgang is tragically forced to inhabit. Schleinzer's screenplay often contains fragments of scenes: Michael and Wolfgang watching TV, cleaning up, or visiting a petting zoo. At one point they celebrate Christmas. Schleinzer shows the onset of a sexual encounter but cuts to another scene before it begins. His approach creates the opposite of sensationalism; he outlines their existence, and in doing so, makes it feel real.

Michael carefully limits Wolfgang's understanding of the situation. The child writes letters to his parents and places them under his pillow, under the assumption that they somehow make their way to the mail. Eventually, that illusion starts to unravel, and the astute Wolfgang begins to act out. That only happens, however, once all hope has faded from the picture.

Hardly a newcomer , Schleinzer has some 60 credits as a casting director to his name, including Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" and "The White Ribbon." Haneke's willingness to broach taboo subject matter may have had an influence here, but Schleinzer's casting experience is also readily apparent. The actors are the movie's secret weapon.

Fuith (who played a different sort of doomed protagonist in the amusing German zombie movie "Rammbock") looks like a nerdier version of Tony Hale's man-child character on "Arrested Development." Wearing a constant blank stare behind his wireframe glasses, he's nearly a figure of comedy--but there's nothing amusing about his private affairs. He's not a sympathetic character, nor even a terribly psychotic one, and the mystery of his pedophiliac urges dominates nearly every scene. At work, he's up for a promotion. He has a caring mother who calls to check up on him, maintains a few office friends, and even manages a one night stand (maybe just to prove to himself that he can do it). Fuith somehow makes this odd dichotomy believable.

Newcomer Rauchenberger, meanwhile, embodies complete innocence with the haunting absence of performance. His sullen expression and inability to comprehend the nature of his captivity deepen the morbid overtones. Although the duo's scenes together are often hard to watch, they leave much to the imagination. The sole graphic moment arrives when Michael whips out his genitalia at the dinner table and quotes a porn movie to his young prisoner, who shoots down Michael's attempt at swagger with ease. Then the worst is over, but the danger hasn't gone away.

Press notes claim that "Michael" takes place over the course of a five-month period, but the sense of time stays ambiguous, as if to underscore the inescapable quality of Wolfgang's conditions. Those mundane details heighten the tension that Schleinzer skillfully creates, but they also embolden the suspense of the movie's final act, when sudden events begin to call Michael's set-up into question. When he recovers from a life-threatening injury or risks the discovery of his basement activities by a nosey co-worker, Schleinzer toys with audience expectations of a clean happy ending, but he avoids exploiting it. Michael is not an object of pity, but Schleinzer still makes his monster familiar, which is a much creepier prospect.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? With a U.S. distributor bold enough to take it on, "Michael" could generate enough controversy surrounding its subject matter to gain wide recognition, although most audiences aware of its plot will probably stay away. A small acquisition deal is likely.

criticWIRE grade: A-

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18 Comments

  • Luke | February 21, 2012 5:15 PMReply

    are you people serious? homosexuality is between two consenting adults! whereas having sex with a child, who may at the time agree is still disturbing and extremely inappropriate. Honestly it will never be accepted as it is morally wrong, you morons!!!!!! I myself am very liberal but couldn't believe the pro pedophile rants! shocked and appalled

  • James | February 16, 2012 10:14 AMReply

    What does this Michael have in common with the other Michael http://bit.ly/xOlrz8

  • DOCTOR WHO | February 5, 2012 1:50 PMReply

    We believe that persons who are sexually attracted to children can be contributing members of their communities and that they deserve to be treated with respect. All clients should be treated in a caring, non-judgmental, and respectful manner...... chek this please http://b4uact.org/

  • patman | February 2, 2012 7:08 PMReply

    okay let me ask you this: if we, and i patially agree, take pedeophilia as a sexual orientation, how does a men who is a pedophile get his satisfaction? i mean sooner or later he has to look at pictures, videos, (which i think are most of the time not a result of a non molesting surroundings) or ... find himself the real thing ... which in my opinion he will find hard to stay absolutly non sexual with ... so at one point he will take what he wants, what he loves ... and i dont think that even if its "non violent" and the child lets him proceed on a freewill base it will haunt the child forever cause it is not yet ready to process sexual interactions at that age. any other options or opinions???
    oh ... and by the way ... please never ever compare a mental condition ... or sexual orientation which is maybe missunderstood in its time cause it is kind of in a direct context with child abuse, and people are "just" not able to say it out loud "yet" that they feel like this, or maybe get caught because of illegal content on their computer, with the holocaust where 2/3 of an entire race got slaughtered!!
    all the best from europe

  • str8pervert | January 7, 2012 5:01 AMReply

    i think that we have a pedophiles party here....

  • HERMES | September 12, 2011 5:39 AMReply

    1.- There are pedophiles who don’t molest children, and there are also child molesters who aren’t pedophiles.
    2.-There are homosexuals who molest woman, mens or children..
    3.-There are heterosexuals who molest and rape woman or children
    4.-If you molest a woman that not make you a heterosexual in the same way if you molest a children that dont make you a pedophile... that only make you a CRIMINAL and you deserve the jail of corse
    The sexual orientation is only that, that not change your values... if you love, you still loving having any sexual orientation.

  • You probably think I'm a pedophile | July 18, 2011 7:42 AMReply

    Like somebody said; pedophilia isn't the crime... child molestation is. There are pedophiles who don't molest children, and there are also child molesters who aren't pedophiles.

    For those who don't believe that pedophilia is a sexual orientation; maybe it is a paraphilia, so was homosexuality 40 years ago... maybe someday pedophilia will be understood as another orientation as its frequency among the population is not as rare as one would think and much like heterosexuality or homosexuality... pedophilia is not something that the pedophiles choose, nor is it something they can give up.

    Anyways, I waste my breath, the people who are smart enough to see something for what it really is will, and the barbarians wont.

  • torboy | July 17, 2011 2:28 AMReply

    There are heterosexual men worldwide who kill and rape women also, who are very jealous, alcoholic, drug addict, that kind of man don´'t let her wife or partner study, work and talk to her female friends or another males, due he is sexist and chauvinist who believes in the inferiority of women and thinks she would betray him whether let her free, even he forsakes his home, and forgives his own sons. ..

    So, if there are sick bisexual, gay and straight men too, it means sexual orientation and the criminal behavior is not the same thing..It's true there are men who rape and kill children, who proclaim to be boy lover, but that' not true, they are simply killers, murders. But there are true boy lovers that never would kill someone, who study, work and help people. And they have born as boy lovers, so their sexual orientation is not something they may choose. .

    Exist a bunch of cops and attorneys corrupts entangled in scandals. They are not free of guilty, then they have not moral to judge. Therefore, who is free of sin throw the first stone.

  • slvrspun | July 15, 2011 7:50 AMReply

    Go Amy! Actually, there is some evidence that the Jews were not so innocent prior to their persecution by the Nazis.. but I say that just to re-illustrate Amy's point that the hatred is not so dissimilar to that shown to the Jews. You'll get good guys and bad guys in any group you'd care to poke a stick at, but civilised people generally recognise that it is wrong or just plain foolish to vilify the whole group on the basis of the behaviour of a few baddies. It wasn't acceptable to persecute and murder so many Jews, and it is not acceptable to do the same to pedophiles.

  • crunchy | July 15, 2011 3:33 AMReply

    I'm just going to leave this here... http://www.ipce.info/host/wilson/index.htm

    Please refrain from commenting until you have read it.

    See now, if I made a film which portrayed gays or Muslims so ignorantly, I'd get arrested for hate speech, not an A-. Pedo-hate is an entirely irrational phenomenon, and if you still uphold it having been presented with accurate information which the gutter press will deliberately withhold from you, you are quite simply everything that is wrong with democracy. There are many vested interests that get behind the pedo hysteria. Remind me, how many tens of billions was NewsCorp worth? And then there's the prison-industrial complex in the States. But most important of all, it lets successive administrations get away with blatant constitutional and human rights violations, and to rapturous applause from the peasants at that. In that sense, pedos are much like the Jews of Nazi Germany, as Amy quite rightly said. It does not take a pedo to realize this, either. It just takes empathy and rationality. Not only do very few people actually possess these attributes, the level of misinformation by the press is astonishing.

  • Amy | May 19, 2011 3:48 AMReply

    Rape is a deplorable crime, but that is what it is, a crime. Pedophilia is a sexual orientation, even though it is currently vilified by society.

    You were raped, but that is the crime, being a pedophile is not the crime. This mentality you portray is the type of Nazi-esque propaganda I'm talking about, and it's exactly why I think filmmakers need to focus their lenses on the reality of pedophiles, their humanity, not the socially constructed violence that is currently trendy and politically correct.

    At some point in the future when society emerges from this current state of hysteria regarding pedophiles, and child sexuality, we will be able to look back and be ashamed of the current "holocaust" against pedophiles, we'll be able to look back and see the hate and hysteria for what it was: ignorance, hate, fear, and hysteria.

  • Anne | May 18, 2011 5:38 AMReply

    Pedophiles are despicable, disgusting child-rapists. Children do not have the mental acuity or experience to consent to sex. They are easily manipulated and cannot make the appropriate distinctions or decisions that older teens and adults are capable of making when they choose to have sex.

    Do not ever, ever call pedophilia a sexual orientation. How DARE you? Gay people, bisexual people and transexual people do not force or manipulate children into sex. Pedophiles do. Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis were victims of a regime of murder and institutionalized discrimination through no fault of their own. They did nothing to warrant the crimes perpetrated against them. Pedophiles rape children, they abuse children in ways that will damage them for their entire lives.

    I'm the victim of a pedophile and I did not choose to have sex, I was forced. It wasn't an "orientation" for him, it was his way of controlling and abusing an innocent child. I was raped and he was a monster to me. He still is and always will be. You cannot classify or justify raping children as normal behavior. Pedophiles may look normal or benighn, but they aren't. They destroy children's lives. Stop excusing the behavior of child abusers and pretending that they deserve more forgiveness than any other criminal who destroys the life of his victim.

  • Amy | May 17, 2011 12:37 PMReply

    D.J. you show the same type of mentality that the Nazis showed towards the Jews. A rapist is a monster, a pedophile is not a monster, it is only someone with a sexual orientation that has become politically correct and vilify. The exact same intensity of propaganda that was once used against Jews is now being used against Pedophiles, your reaction to my first post proves that.

  • D.J. | May 16, 2011 10:28 AMReply

    ....They are monsters? How DARE you call these people human beings.

  • Amy | May 15, 2011 3:12 AMReply

    The world loves these type of movies where the modern day scapegoat can appear as vile as possible. Pedophiles in the world today are the equivalent to what Jews were in Nazi Germany, a tortured group attacked by insurmountable propaganda.

    What would take real bravery, and real honesty, would be a film that portrays pedophiles as the human beings they are, not the monsters the world wants them to be.

  • k | May 14, 2011 9:48 AMReply

    I never understood the point of making these type of movies, the only audience it appeals to are the Pedophile's throughout the world. Why give these low life's any idea that their worth making a moving about.

  • Jojo | August 6, 2012 10:50 AM

    K, wow... Who made you the authority on why people watch a certain type of movie. By your own rational, a person who enjoys a well made movie about the life of a seriel killer would only appeal to a murderer. Your ignorance is amazing. Michael was a haunting, extremely well done movie which I saw simply because I enjoy movies that make me think about different subjects, even one that is uncomfortable- and, I am a 41 year old mom
    - def not a pedophile, or as some of the rational comments point out , not a kidnapper and child rapist.

  • Sascha | January 8, 2012 5:45 PM

    "the only audience it appeals to are the Pedophile's throughout the world"

    No. A film where the "pedophile" imprisons a child is certainly not a film which appeals to pedophiles. It is not a film about a love relationship, or a sexual one where the boy really likes the sex - which is how they think about their own relationships. But, once the relation presented is based on rape and imprisonment, this is, for pedophiles, a variant of the mainstream hate propaganda against them.

    This film may be attractive for boylovers only because there is a nice boy actor, for girllovers it is not interesting at all.

    This film is simply the psychological game of presenting a monster as a human being. Interesting but without any connection to pedophilia. It appeals to a different type: A leftist who believes that all criminals are criminals not because they are bad, but because of some circumstances, bad education and so on. So, even a monster who imprisons a boy to rape him is to be presented as a human being.