sat 22/02/2020

Michael | reviews, news & interviews



A restrained film about the relationship between a paedophile and his captive

Michael Fuith (pictured) plays his affectless namesake

Michael is a work of fiction, but it is also clearly an amalgam of real-life events. For first-time Austrian director Markus Schleinzer (former casting director for Michael Haneke, whose influence you may detect), the subject must have particular resonance: in this story of a child abduction by a lone paedophile, it’s unavoidable that we think of Josef Fritzl and Wolfgang Priklopil, as well as Belgian child-killer Marc Dutroux. Schleinzer has created a script that bears comparison to all three cases in ways that are incidental but also striking.

Schleinzer also appears to rely on some of the familiar details of the Dutroux case to create layers of mounting tension: circumstances conspire to ensure the captive child is left alone for prolonged periods, and as the camera’s focus moves beyond the sealed metal door of the cellar (pictured below), we become urgently aware of the boy’s reliance for survival on the survival of his tormenter.

The sealed metal door of the cellarBut Michael wisely features few graphic horrors. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest gratuitous physical or mental cruelty beyond the stark facts of the case. Here the ordinary rituals of domesticity are preserved: adult and child share meals, complete a jigsaw (tellingly, two pieces are missing), go on outings (one scene shows them at a petting farm, the only contact the child has with other sentient beings in which he can retain an element of control), and share routine domestic tasks.

What’s more, the child’s prison resembles not a dungeon but a boy’s ordinary bedroom: between the desk and the television we find books and colouring pens.The only thing conspicuously missing is a window. Indeed, this emphasis on the mundane is carried to a point where it becomes almost nullifying in its bland routines. Here, in this unremarkable Austrian suburb, in this drably unremarkable house – its shuttered windows resisting interference from the outside world – the abuse of 10-year-old Wolfgang (in fact, we never get to hear his name spoken) is not only sexual but a complete denial of all his emotional needs. The ordinary gestures that simulate a normal relationship are mostly carried out in silence. 

The scene menacingly cuts through the bizarre charade of domestic normality

The film opens onto an already established but wary relationship. We don’t know how and where Wolfgang was abducted or how long he’s been a prisoner. We remain firmly in the present  - no flashbacks and nothing of Wolfgang’s family. He is never heard to cry for his mother, but he does write long letters home, which his abductor doesn't post but stashes away. It’s a detail that recalls an account of the only surviving victim of Dutroux’s. A shoebox contains dozens of opened envelopes, neatly filed. 

Though we are given nothing of Wolfgang's back story, Michael’s social interactions are explored through his work at an nondescript insurance call centre. Here he not only achieves promotion but is invited on a skiing trip with colleagues. Occasionally, we see childish fits of anger which are deeply unnerving. He is passive, but also volatile. And in one notable scene, Michael giggles at a violent and obscene line in a porn film that he appears so taken with that he awkwardly reenacts it at the breakfast table the following morning. As ridiculous as it is, the scene menacingly cuts through the bizarre charade of domestic normality, and is among the few in this sensitive and intelligently restrained film that hints at the sexually abusive nature of the relationship. In fact, the only graphic sexual scene belongs to a one-off adult heterosexual coupling in which Michael fails to get sufficiently aroused. 

In almost every scene, at least until three-quarters in, David Rauchenberger’s Wolfgang retains a watchful sullenness, while Michael Fuith plays his affectless namesake with unnerving stillness. Only once, on discovering a poster of a missing cat, is Wolfgang heard to cry. But the scene is short and the boy sits with his back to us, his sniffles barely audible. As Michael looks on, the viewer is, for once, unsure whether the abuser's normally passive face and fastidious demeanor is registering empathy or incomprehension.

The film's abrupt, somewhat ambivalent ending provided the cue for an audible sigh of frustration at the press screening I attended. Easy resolutions are undoubtedly cheap, but one last frame might have offered necessary catharsis in this instance. Instead, it's as if we've been denied the chance to exhale after holding our breaths for the duration. 

Watch the trailer to Michael

The viewer is, for once, unsure whether the abuser's normally passive face and fastidious demeanor is registering empathy or incomprehension


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters