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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Michael (2011)

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.

Rating- 9/10


  1. Did Michael not end up having sex with the woman in the bar back at her place anyway? I don't necessarily think Michael feels particularly physically inadequate. He seems quite confident in various parts of the film. He's basically Mr Ordinary, boring. I think that was part of the point that the director was making e.g. in the Go-Carting scene - he completely blends in - no one asks him why he's there once - he almost gets what he was looking for. He's basically an extremely selfish individual - anything he does for the boy is just to maintain the stability of the household or to amuse himself - look at the way he meticulously burns everything - it's all about him and destroying any evidence. Look at the way he lies to the boy about writing to his parents for years and years - that's psychological torture - and he doesn't care - he finds it amusing. His parents and family are decent people, so it's probably got nothing to do withe them. His colleagues try to be friendly to him but he is rude to them. Some women even like him. He's just a total narcissist. You can't easily imagine what's that's like - it's nothing like the way you or I relate to people and their suffering. He just doesn't care. He just wants to get his rocks off without making too much effort or disturbing his comfortable life - it's the same as Josef Fritzel - he went on holiday to the caribbean while his family was left locked in the basement with a months supply of dry food.

    1. You lose your ability to empathize when you're isolated. And Michael was certainly established as a lonely person. I don't think he finds it amusing, though. He still has a heart, he's just not surrendering completely to the id. He's also introverted, asocial and content. That's why he doesn't like making small talk with the other people at work.

      You should check out Trust. I think you will greatly appreciate it. Thank you for your detailed comments.

  2. One of the sickest things about paedophiles is that when things start to go wrong, they blame other people, like the children. The child led me on, and all that crap. I think you should also mention that the child actor is brilliant! And the character he plays has great strength - I really admired that little guy by the end of the film - he was smart and determined - he never let Michael think that he had the better of him - that clearly made Michael very nervous. You could see the story as like a fairy tail where the child overcomes the big bad wolf as well - the only relief the kid has is reading fairy tales.

    1. "You could see the story as like a fairy tail where the child overcomes the big bad wolf as well - the only relief the kid has is reading fairy tales." Haha, that's an interesting point Rosko.

      I see where you're coming from but my interest lies in why Michael is the way he is. And I think the film gives us quite a bit of that.

    2. I agree with Rosko. As for the picture he gave to Michael at Xnas; my immediate impression was that it was a picture of the boy and the pig. Did you notice how detached and stoic the two figure were? It was the kid's interpretation of his attachmenr to Michael, cold and preferably at an arm's length!

  3. what happens to the child in the end ? as he was left with food does he survive and gets found by the mother or otherwise ? this would be a nice end to a terrible, very sad , compelling story but what would that child's future be ? traumatised for life ? unable to forge relationships ? it would be good to know

    1. Watch Trust to see THAT side of it. But yes, it's going to be very difficult. But this is Michael's story, not Wolfgang.

  4. I don't think I agree with the part about the picture. I think Michael was sad because the boy put a lot of effort in writing to his parents, but then gives him a picture like that. It shows that the boy doesn't love him.

    1. In that case, what made them decide to bring home another boy?


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