German philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” when writing about the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, in order to understand how supposedly ‘ordinary’ individuals could perpetrate atrocities. Michael, the debut feature from Austrian writer-director Markus Schleinzer, brings Arendt’s concept to mind: Michael is an outwardly innocuous thirtysomething paedophile (Michael Fuith) who has abducted a ten-year-old boy named Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) and imprisoned him in the basement of his suburban Viennese home.
Inspired by the harrowing real-life Austrian cases of Josef Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch, and unfolding over a five-month period, it’s a powerful film that avoids sensationalism. Omission is as important here as commission: we never do learn how Michael kidnapped Wolfgang (though a chilling scene at a go-karting track where Michael attempts to pick up a second boy suggests a possible modus operandi) and the sexual abuse is implied rather than depicted. We also learn nothing about Wolfgang’s own family or any police investigation into his disappearance. Instead, Schleinzer focuses on the dull, quotidian rituals of Michael’s existence: he works at an insurance company, keeps his home spotlessly clean, watches TV, does jigsaws and puts up the Christmas decorations with his victim. Filled with motifs of entrapment, it’s a film of controlled camerawork, muted colours and troubling silences.
Schleinzer never attended film school, but was well placed to move into directing after working for 17 years as a casting director for fellow Austrians including Michel Haneke (The White Ribbon, Time of the Wolf, The Piano Teacher), Jessica Hausner (Lourdes) and Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days). When Michael was unveiled at Cannes last spring, it was criticised in some quarters both for being aesthetically in thrall to Haneke’s pared-down visual style and for failing to explain the behaviour of its central character.
Schleinzer refuses to turn Michael into a monster: this predator is also a diligent work colleague, a brother, a son, a neighbour – and a man who goes skiing with male friends. His use of Boney M’s disco anthem ‘Sunny’ does far more than provoke ironic laughter in the audience. Watching the recently promoted protagonist in his car cheerfully singing along to “Yesterday my life was filled with pain. You smiled at me and eased the pain / The dark days are gone, and the bright days are here” makes one realise that this disturbed individual, like all of us, yearns to be loved by his chosen partner. Or, to paraphrase Flaubert’s comment on Madame Bovary, “Michael. C’est nous.”
What was the starting-point for your film?
“I was a casting director for 17 years, and directing a movie was always in my mind, although I was afraid of doing it. During the shooting of Haneke’s The White Ribbon, for which I did the casting of the children – we saw 7,000 kids over a year for 48 parts – I rehearsed scenes with the kids. Haneke said it was time for me to make my first film. He told me to come back in three months with a script.
Three months later he called me and said: “Where’s the script?” So I sat myself down and I prepared three different storylines and read them out to friends. The one that prompted the most interesting discussions was the one about a paedophile. It was late 2008 and you couldn’t pick up a paper or switch on a television without noticing the Madeleine McCann case, the Natascha Kampusch case or the Josef Fritzl case. I was disgusted by the way the tabloid press used these stories to make money. I felt myself getting addicted to information about these stories.
I can’t stand films which just use the issue of child abuse as an excuse for a certain story. If I had been a victim, and I had seen that sort of film, I would have felt so uncomfortable. I wanted to make a film about this topic which wasn’t so easy to consume.
Why does your film concentrate on the perpetrator, not the victim?
I didn’t want to make a fairytale out of the story. I didn’t want to make cheap money out of the pain and sorrow of victims. Perhaps I was too afraid to tell the story from the victim’s perspectives – because who am I to tell, as I myself have not been a victim of sexual abuse? Society has to confront its own perpetrators, whether it’s in terms of paedophilia or politicians who change laws in order to avoid being prosecuted. What is interesting about Austria is that the country likes to see itself as a victim of Nazism. We say that we were annexed by Hitler, and after World War II we declared we were his first victim. This is why Austrian society has been held back in the last 60 years. We have just seen ourselves as a tourist destination – a country of Mozart and mountains. That view doesn’t lead to a modern, open-hearted society.
In Darian Leader’s new book What Is Madness?, he notes how the psychiatrists assessing the British serial killer Dr Harold Shipman observed how he displayed no visible, external symptoms of madness. Is there a connection there with the apparent ‘normality’ and everyday routines of Michael in your film?
It would be very easy to expect that all paedophiles are monstrous Adolf Hitler-type figures, with weird hairstyles, who are always screaming. I am not sure what ‘normality’ means. Everyone thinks about ’normality’ as a small point, but my way of living, my ‘normality’, might be completely different from yours. You can look up in a textbook what paedophilia is, whether scientifically or legally. Yet it’s just one part of an individual’s character. They are also doing lots of things that we are doing – they are sons, daughters, colleagues, parents, friends. They have to have a life, which they must organise.
We like to call these people monsters, but that is wrong. A monster is not a human being. It’s a creature from a fairytale. It’s a way of distancing ourselves. It stops us thinking about this other person and it makes us feel safe, and it means we don’t have to change at all. Hannah Arendt had a saying that the most important thing is thinking without a banister, not relying on preconceived categories.
People ask me why I don’t show Michael being abused as a child. To me that sort of simplistic explanation creates distance. I didn’t want to make a documentary about this subject, because fiction can do so much more. In watching a documentary, you are given a person’s age, their name, where they live, and you think, “They are not like me.” We might feel empathy for somebody else, but we know that empathy can be a moment which, if it’s not turned into action, becomes something else. In Austria when Natascha Kampusch first escaped, she was a national heroine. When she said she didn’t want to be a victim for the whole of her life, people got angry, because they thought she was society’s victim.
Harold Pinter said “I hate the word ‘because’ in drama. Life is much more mysterious than plays make it out to be. Who are we to say that this happened because that happened?” Do you feel that sentiment applies to your film?
To me there is a difference between information and knowledge. Getting the former doesn’t mean getting the latter. I wanted to make a film which was much more about the audience’s interpretations than about confirming my own moral position. People’s responses often say more about them than the film. Some people have called me up and told me about being abused. Now I give them a telephone number to call, where they can talk to an expert.
What was important for you in terms of the mise en scène in Michael?
To me I think the script for Michael is better than the final film. I actually wrote a very detailed script. What was most important for me in the actual filming was capturing the tone of the script. I am a complete idiot technically! Beforehand I knew nothing about cameras or lenses, but my director of photography Gerard Kerkletz was prepared for that. I drew every scene in advance. I passed these drawings to Gerard and discussed them with him.
From the beginning it was very important that we kept the nature of both being near to somebody and being detached. I didn’t want to make pictures which were moral statements. I wanted [to give] the audience enough space for the possibility of thinking. From the beginning I insisted on not showing any sexual scenes. Why should I show a child being raped, even though we know that happens in real life? Some critics have said it’s a cold movie. To me it’s not cold, it’s pure. I certainly didn’t think of it as another feel-bad Austrian film.
Why did you use Boney M’s joyous disco hit ‘Sunny’, both during the film and over the closing credits?
I used to dance to this kind of music with my sister in my bedroom in the 1970s. We didn’t know if we could get the rights up until till the last minute. It’s to do with Michael’s childhood. If you listen to the lyrics, combined with the mood, it’s rather tough. To me this song is about projection, as are most of our relationships. We want to be loved, we want to be happy, we want this certain person in our lives. For Michael, he wants to be happy and loved in his relationship. This is why he cries at Christmas, because he doesn’t get the present he wanted. In this relationship, he’s a parent, a lover, a child – as sometimes we are in our relationships. He’s got a new job. He wants to celebrate at home again with Wolfgang. This is why he brings the food home from the office party. He likes pleasing people.
Catherine Wheatley’s review of Michael is published in the March 2012 issue of Sight & Sound.