Trace it to the 2006 Natascha Kampusch case or the even more terrible 2008 Elisabeth Fritzl one reverberating through into fiction, but longterm kidnapping is having a moment. Despite apparently opening with a card that claims otherwise, the incidents seem unavoidable inspirations for Frédéric Videau’s “A Moi Seule,” which just had its premiere in Berlin, a film that tracks through the eight-year relationship between an man and the girl he kidnaps and hides in his basement. Emma Donoghue‘s acclaimed 2010 novel “Room” is narrated by a five-year-old kid who’s lived his entire life in the claustrophobic space in which he and his mother have been imprisoned. And Markus Schleinzer‘s “Michael,” which opens in New York this week after bowing at Cannes last year, gazes impassively at five months in the life of the title character, played by Michael Fuith, who’s been holding a 10-year-old boy named Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) in a soundproofed room in his house.
There’s something both intensely monstrous and wretchedly human about the idea of keeping another person for one’s own use — it’s an act of violence and abuse, but it’s also a twisted attempt at artificially recreating a familial or romantic bond, albeit with all the power residing with one party. The relationship Michael inflicts on Wolfgang wavers with great discomfort (if that even needs to be said) between fatherly and sexual. He sends the boy off to bed after deeming he’s watched enough TV for one night, but then wanders into his room later (it’s a locked, windowless space in the basement). In the next scene, we see Michael washing his penis in the sink, signaling the apparently routine rape that happened off screen and summing up the quizzical distance with which Schleinzer’s regards his distasteful subject. “Michael” doesn’t flinch away from the details, horrific and mundane, of its situation, but also regards them with a kind of faux indifference that can be maddening. It doesn’t want to offer judgment on its protagonist, but it also can’t find empathy for him.
“Michael” is a provocation, certainly, but it’s also a film about our desire to see the normal in those around us. Michael lives “alone” in a suburban house with metal shutters that he lowers every night. He has a desk job at an office. He’s awkward and a little cold, but seldom in ways that would trigger alarm — he listens to small talk from his coworkers, he’s invented up a long-distance girlfriend to placate his family, he goes on a ski vacation with two male friends and bags a waitress at the bar. He’s the type of man about whom, when discovered, dazed colleagues and neighbors would tell newspapers “We had no idea — he seemed nice, kept to himself.” It’s the threat of that discovery and whether it will come too late for Wolfgang that provides Michael with its building tension, though it’s arrived at via ever more manipulative ways.
The boy’s total dependence on his captor is well-established, from the sporadic replenishing of his daytime supply of instant noodles to the power in his underground prison, which Michael controls from outside. We don’t hear the explanation Michael has given the child about his presence in Michael’s house, but Wolfgang writes letters to his parents that his captor files away, naturally, unsent, and that may account for why he doesn’t more actively try to escape. The passage of time in the film is marked by a series of events that threaten to end its central scenario in a variety of ways — Michael ventures down a slope intended for a much more experienced skier; Wolfgang gets sick and we see that Michael’s not going to risk taking him to the doctor; Michael ventures out to kidnap a companion for the boy; Michael gets in an accident and ends up in the hospital; a woman stops in unannounced. No one knows the boy exists, and it gives an edge of trepidation to everything that Michael does that could result in Wolfgang being abandoned. But there’s an artificiality to this approach to a shadow of a narrative arc that suggests a hidden hostility toward the viewer, one that comes into the open as the film reaches an extended denouement that teases out whether Wolfgang has survived for a needlessly long time.
Schleinzer, who makes his directorial debut with “Michael,” worked as a casting director on Michael Haneke‘s “The Piano Teacher,” “Time of the Wolf” and “The White Ribbon,” and seems to have absorbed some of Haneke’s most irritatingly audience-baiting qualities. He deserves credit for ambition in venturing into such unpleasant and difficult territory (as does Gerald Kerkletz for his deadpan cinematography), but simply because his film isn’t overtly exploitative doesn’t mean that it achieves anything. “Michael” doesn’t find any deeper understanding of its subject, just offers him up in all of his clammy reality, proving that even awful situations can be made banal. [C+]