Using the notorious news stories from his Austrian homeland as an impetus, Schleinzer creates a miasmatic film which domesticates the barbaric themes of human captivity and pedophilia; delicately tightroping between social commentary and exploitation.
Antagonist Michael is a balding, boring loner. Selling insurance by day, by night he returns home to his concrete block home and the 10 year old boy Wolfgang he keeps locked in the basement. Together they prepare dinner, do the dishes, and watch TV, all before Michael’s uncontrollable sexual impulses take over.
Letting up on a profitable day job as a casting director for the likes of Haneke and Siedl, Michael is Markus Schleinzer’s first in the director’s chair. Unsurprisingly, his ability to find good actors for difficult central roles doesn’t let up here, with the eerily omnipresent but nondescript Michael Fuith in the difficult titular role, and David Rachenbauger as his young prisoner Wolfgang. The performances are discomfortingly fantastic, so much so that one can imagine it’ll be hard for the pair to ever shake off their involvement in this film with later work.
Michael is the antithesis of that infamous, superfluous character Humbert Humbert, from Nabokov’s Lolita. Instead of grandiose, deluded and over sensitised, Michael is a dullard, never giving us respite to his emotionally vapid exterior, as well as no skewed reasoning for his sadistic acts. Such a passive demeanour carries throughout the ninety minutes we have to endure.
Thankfully withdrawing from extreme shock tactics and only ever implying the sexual acts occurring between the two, Schleinzer makes the egregious subject matter all the more terrifying and controversial by presenting it as clinically and borderline blasé.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Michael takes Wolfgang on a trip into the woods. Clutching the child’s back like a figurative ball and chain, the two walk passed another boy with a domineering adult figure alongside him. Although we initially assume this is a simple picture of a father and son enjoying a pleasant day out in the wild, the sadistic world Schleinzer creates makes us start to question the fidelity of the picture.
Unlike Lanthimos’ excellent Dogtooth, Schleinzer tries so desperately to normalise and satirise pedophilia and internment, that it becomes rather boring to watch in the process. Cold and acquiescent throughout, even the immeasurably tense closing scene doesn’t save Michael from being an insipid take on the omnipresent societal issue.