Schleinzer’s Michael – shock tactics or powerful provocation?

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Michael [Markus Schleinzer, 2011]: my short review of the film published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

Markus Schleinzer’s astonishingly assured debut feature is a deeply disquieting film about a paedophile who has a boy locked in his basement. It is also devastatingly brilliant.

Carefully understated, its precision of framing, editing and sound design is powerfully employed to convey the horror and disturbing banality of the everyday routines. Much of the story unfolds by implication, but is all the more unsettling for it. The film avoids simplistic explanation, and instead concentrates on subtle observation of character.

Critical opinion has been somewhat divided, but I think it may be one of the best films you see this year.

However, not everyone has been so positive about the film. Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times:-

a strange and troubling little film, a hermetically sealed creep-fest that seems to have no desire to be anything more than just that.

And Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice:-

You can’t say that Michael is sensationalistic, for it is cold to the touch. You can’t say that the things shown here do not happen, for even worse things do. And you can’t say that such things don’t deserve the spotlight of art, for the artist should always bear in mind Terence’s “Nothing that is human is alien to me.”

But not everything that is human is naturally interesting, and Schleinzer approaches his subject not as an investigator, but as though covering up a crime scene and scrubbing it of anything that might provide insight or empathy or psychological traction. The cleanup is so thorough, you can’t detect what possible motive he might have had for making Michael, other than to play a nasty game with the viewer’s natural concern for a child’s life. This is cheap when it comes with a Hollywood happy ending and no better without.

Criticisms tend to focus on two aspects: that the film is cold and detached, to such an extent it refrains from taking any moral viewpoint; and that the film provides no explanation for Michael’s behaviour.

Some even say that the story is told from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. I don’t think it is: in some sense the film is actually told from the viewpoint of the audience. This is why the detached, observational style works so well – it provokes a reaction in the viewer: the film asks for active audience participation in constructing its meaning. It does not follow, though, that the film has no moral standpoint; quite the opposite – each and every scene only makes sense in relation to the expected and carefully suggested viewer reactions. In this context, the film’s refusal to provide any substantial explanation becomes an advantage rather than a problem: it avoids reductive and dismissive closure, while stimulating enquiry of the film’s themes.

Jonathan Romney in The Independent:-

Michael’s lucid, uninflected style suggests a spirit of quasi-scientific observation: Schleinzer invites us to study his protagonist rather than “understand” him. Schleinzer’s cool, clinical direction is very much school-of-Haneke. But while Michael is extremely uncomfortable viewing, the fact that it’s never pitched for either pathos or horror makes the film all the more challenging – because it so directly tests our understanding of normality and aberration, humanity and inhumanity.

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:-

When I first saw Michael last year, I wondered whether this film really told us anything new, for all its brilliance, and for all that it offered us the conventional enticements of plot twists and turns. Arguably, Michael can’t compare in horror to the real-life Kampusch and Fritzl cases that have inspired it. But, for me, a second viewing allowed the implications to emerge.

Michael is a scabrous, satirical comment on the Stockholm syndrome inherent in all parent-child relationships. What is disturbing about this story is not simply the sexual abuse, which is kept off-camera, but the way Michael and Wolfgang fall so easily into a grotesque routine that looks like family life: this is the theatre of normality that takes place up on the ground floor. (Here, the movie is comparable to Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, another truly horrible vision of violence, secrecy and family dysfunction.)
And the film offers something else: a vision of male relationships themselves. In the brief timespan covered by the movie, Wolfgang begins to grow up, just a little; just perceptibly, he is approaching manhood, horrifyingly shaped and guided by Michael. In one of the film’s most mysterious scenes, Wolfgang gives Michael a Christmas card on which he has drawn, not a horribly ironic or parodic daddy-son picture, but two figures of equal height. Has he imagined his grownup future alongside his captor? Michael is more furious and scared by this than anything else: imagining the future, and by that token understanding the present, is something of which Michael is incapable.

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