I first saw Markus Schleinzer’s Michael at the Chennai International Film Festival in December 2011. The festival was powered by obscure films from unsung directors and with respect to narrowing down my choices, I certainly had my work cut out. I don’t like going by plotlines. Stories don’t matter to me nearly as much as storytelling and characters do. Critical acclaim was the only deciding factor. But most of these films hadn’t even been released. Michael premiered ‘In Competition’ at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. I learnt of the premise only after the presenter said “The film is about a paedophile who locks up a kid in his basement.” My hopes were up. I like films that permeate into the dark depths of the human mind. Michael did that and more.
A half-bald man is just getting home from work. The house is a barren place. Empty. Quiet. Lifeless. You hear the sound of things being moved, things being dropped, things being carefully placed. The window blinds fall. He takes the stairs down to the basement and unlocks a heavy metal door. “Come on” he says. A little boy walks out of an unlit room. They share a silent dinner and watch TV hoping to inspire a hint of life into their lives. The boy is urged downstairs, back to the basement. The man follows shortly after and shuts the heavy metal door behind him. The film cuts to a visual of the man washing his genitals. Say Hello to our lead character, Michael (Michael Fuith). And his boy toy, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger).
They head outside. “Now,” says Michael. Wolfgang crawls out of a blanket that he has been hiding under, in the backseat of Michael’s car. How long has this been happening? There’s no shock or surprise or tension experienced by either of them. It’s normal. What if he thinks every kid of his age is locked up in the basement? Certainly a lot of brainwashing and manipulation has gone into keeping things so calm. Remember Dogtooth?
Michael works as an insurance agent. He’s quite successful too. On the outside, everything looks normal. Without the sexual hints, it is easy to mistake their relationship as that of a stern father and a bratty son. We see them singing in front of a Christmas tree, playfully throwing snowballs at each other, solving puzzles and holding hands while gazing into a bird sanctuary. He even remembers to bring back pizzas and pastries, for Wolfgang, from the office party for having received a promotion. When Wolfgang falls sick, Michael tends to him with care. But instead of being spanked, Wolfgang is raped (none of which is shown on screen) at the end of the day.
Right now you’re probably thinking that Michael is a sick, evil, sadistic old man. I don’t blame you. Filmmaker Markus Schleinzer doesn’t see him that way. He sees him as a thoughtful, caring human being with special (and overpowering) needs that can’t be tended to in any other way. But don’t be mistaken, there’s no moral stance being taken here. The take is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Eventually, you’ll see what you really want to see- Wolfgang escaping the clutches of this pederast. Until then, the film performs a character-analysis of Michael. It’s interesting; and equally saddening.
When the boy steals something from the Christmas tree, Michael fights to grab it from him. The boy fights back. An amused Michael laughs “Do you think you even have a chance?” Is this Michael confronting an abandoned self that was bullied? Does he want to project those feelings onto another child by torturing it? Is all this information buried so deep beneath his conscious mind that it hardly seems like a problem? Has it just become a part of him and, in his mind, is just how he is?
Wait, am I reading too much into the film? Physical ineptitude is a key aspect of the film. Michael’s only elevated sense of belongingness is felt in the presence of two men who accompany him on a skiing trip. Playing with the big boys eh? Too bad, he repeatedly falls on his face. In addition to that, he’s unable to have sex with the waitress (they talk about her mentally retarded son (What ideas is Michael getting?)) at a bar who’s attracted to him. It’s really a case of ‘is it in?’ Is he unable to get it up or is it a micropenis he has in between his legs? I’m not trying to sound lewd or vulgar here. I’m merely bringing up a connection I see drawn between physical ineptitude and paedophilia. Michael couldn’t feel like the aggressor when having sex with someone his own age. He’s emasculated by his physical ineptitude, a micropenis and (okay this might be too much of an assumption but I’m going with my gut) a history of being bullied. Pederasty is the only way for him.
Since his most basic drive isn’t being repressed, Michael is a peaceful and happy man. Even though the country is going through a period of economic recession and one among every four people are getting laid off, he receives a promotion. Visitors are permanently banned, including his sister, the only other person he shares an interpersonal relationship with. Michael’s state of contentment is also shown by his disinterest in the world outside. Wolfgang knows more about current affairs (he watches a lot of TV, it’s all he can look forward to) and is a fan of the harry potter series. Strange, considering that Wolfgang is the one locked up in the basement and Michael, being the one who’s getting out.
It’s Christmas. Michael and Wolfgang exchange presents. Wolfgang receives the fifth part of the Harry Potter series. Michael receives an envelope. He opens it and finds a folded paper- a sketch of two boys standing next to each other. Michael burns it. We then see him crying. He empathizes with the kid’s loneliness and understands his cry for help.
Michael has always been a lonely man. I like how this aspect of his mind is presented to us. Early on, he meets with an accident and is lying in hospital, in a semi-private ward. A woman comes near him and asks “Could I take this chair?” Then we hear conversations off-screen, from outside of the camera’s perspective (which is pointed on him). Brilliant.
Michael and Wolfgang make arrangements to accommodate a third person. A bunker bed is built and ribbons are tied to it. It’s time to welcome the guest. Michael goes out hunting for an appropriate little boy worth abducting. What better place to find an enthusiastic, gullible child than a go-karting event for kids? He attempts, but to no avail. We now know how Wolfgang ended up here. Michael keeps up the act by being kind enough to let Wolfgang write to his parents. Of course, the letters are delivered by Michael and so are the responses. “Your room has been rented to another kid. They don’t want you. They don’t want you contacting them anymore and order you to listen to whatever I say.”
We’re introduced to Michael's immediate family only after his death. His mother is not sure how to feel. Looks like she found him to be too much of a disappointment to be disappointed with his departure. His brother wants to go the house and distribute his belongings between them, not because he’s greedy or selfish but because he wants this to be over with.
His mother goes to the basement, exploring his house for the first time and walks to the store room opposite Wolfgang’s room. She presses a light switch but it doesn’t work. What is the significance of this? Why did the Director decide to show us this piece of detail? Is it because Michael’s been too busy in the Wolfgang’s room to bother visiting this storeroom? What are really the chances of him visiting this side of the basement? Nil.
While Trust explored the mind of the victim, Michael shows us the life of the molester. You make the assumptions, you do the analysis, you pass the judgement and you learn what you have to from the experience.