Michael (Markus Schleinzer, Austria)
A chillingly non-judgemental profile of an Austrian pedophile and the 10-year-old boy locked in his basement, Michael is one of the most unique horror films in recent memory. And a horror film it surely is, depicting the domestic normality of Michael (Michael Fuith) and the captive Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) as if it were completely ordinary. They have dinner together and wash the dishes afterwards as an ordinary father and son would do, and even watch TV together. It appears to be a completely ordinary domestic situation, except for the fact that Wolfgang is locked in a basement fortress in complete darkness every night.
We, the audience, know how extraordinary their situation is and how despicable a monster Michael must be, because we’ve heard about cases like Kampusch and Fritzl, but we never actually see Michael commit any atrocity. The abuse is only ever hinted at and never shown on-screen, which forces us to project the horror into the story ourselves. We must imagine why Michael is washing his genitals after visiting the basement, thus it is from within our own imagination that the horror emerges, and this gives the film its true power.
The film achieves this primarily by keeping its distance. Shot in observational style and always around corners or with backs turned to camera, we are never quite let into Michael’s world, and we rarely see him take pleasure in anything at all. We cannot get a grasp on his character, so we can’t feel total contempt for him because he’s so… bland. Film pedophiles are supposed to be sadistic and easy to hate, but Schleinzer instead takes a much less-traveled path by portraying his pedophile as an emotionally icy and restrained character. The only scene in which Michael seems to have any emotional personality at all is a strangely ironic singalong to the Boney M classic “Sunny”, which only serves to confuse us more.
The ending is deliberately left unsatisfying (the collective gasp/heave felt in the cinema is testament to that), and we have to decide for ourselves what might have happened after confronting some pretty uncomfortable possibilities. It’s impossible to call Michael an “enjoyable” film, but it certainly makes you think.
Rating: 3.5 stars