Michael, the first film directed by Michael Haneke’s casting director Markus Schleinzer, is a film that many may admire but few would enjoy. Michael is also the name of our protagonist (Michael Fuith), a man who comes home from work every day to sexually abuse 10 year old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) that he keeps locked in an eerily normal looking room.
It would not take much for such a film to dive into a realm of absolute tastelessness, but Schleinzer’s removed look is a formalistic wonder that keeps us from identifying with Michael even though the film is almost entirely from his point of view. Michael takes place mostly in doors, and the precise, static shots convey both the entrapped helplessness of Wolfgang and the non-emotions of Michael. Michael comes scarily close to parental, however; he makes food for and eats with Wolfgang, watches TV with him, solves jigsaw puzzles, purchases Christmas presents, and takes him to a petting zoo. During those latter moments especially, the camera begins to move, tilting at first but developing into a smooth, handheld track. In those moments, the open camera creates a contrast with the earlier rigidity that suggests that Michael and Wolfgang are almost normal. As we learn more about their relationship, we also begin to see more of their house. Formally, Michael is as purposefully composed as anything you will see.
If that sounds disturbing, it is, but Schleinzer is as cautious as can be. There is very little dialogue in the film, and the lack of non-diegetic sound and the large passages of silence or near-silence ensure that even those “normal” moments are uncomfortable. If it were not for this discomfort, it might appear that the bland but unthreatening Michael is just that—plain, but certainly not sick or criminal. We see a few interactions between Michael and his coworkers, and we know his job involves lots of talking on the phone; he is not close to anyone, but he is far from inept. But Schleinzer is not terribly interested in psychology, explanations, or signs. He is concerned with how pedophiles are uncomfortably similar to the rest of us. Aside from the father-son moments, Michael finds himself, as any other busy person with a child at home is, in a hurry to get out of the hospital. He also has trouble sexually responding to a woman he finds himself with. Nobody suspects his reasons are built upon a horrible secret. How could they?
There is one major misstep, in which Michael to Wolfgang an explicit line that he heard from a porn film. It is the film’s only physically objectionable scene, and it feels like a conceit to confirm that Michael is a monster. Without spoiling anything, there is a late-act twist that dispels any suspicion you may have that Schleinzer wanted you to sympathize with Michael. There is also a scene of Michael crying after abuse is implied, and one of him turning off a TV focusing on missing children. That twist, those scenes, and the film’s tone were enough to tell us that, but we are given the only sign of Michael’s lunacy aside from his pedophilia. It suggests that Michael is more obviously not normal and that someone should have picked up on it, and it implicates media as a potential instigator of pedophilia. The misstep is far from fatal, but it is the biggest detractor of an otherwise great film.
The smaller detractors are length related. At only 96 minutes, Michael should not feel so long, yet there is so much repetition that it at times feels like a formal exercise. Worse, by the last half-hour, the film becomes redundant in its display of Michael’s almost-normalcy. That his two most social moments come in that last half-hour and we still feel like we already know only affirms the need for further editing. Other problems—the lack of emotional attachment to the story, an acceptable but unimpressive performance by a child—are to be expected, but nonetheless make the film hard to love. Michael does not have a lot to say, but it says what it wants in a way that will linger in your memory for quite some time.