For my third movie at the Chicago International Film Festival I chose Michael, an Austrian film by director Markus Schleinzer. The synopsis in the festival guide simply stated: A drama focused on five months in the life of pedophile who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement. I watched the trailer online, which I will attach to the bottom of this review, and thought it could be a very interesting movie-going experience. I am happy to report that this tiny little film is a very special movie indeed! Before I even go into the details, you should find when and if they is playing anywhere near you, and get your ticket. Sadly, I doubt a film like this will recieve a wide release, due to its subject matter. But if you are a fan of the indepedant spirit of filmmaking, fantastic acting, and a unique approach to dark subject matter – this is a must see.
I had already attended Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene, 2 very high profile films at the festival. As I walked into the small theatre where Michael was being screened, I noticed the audience was a bit sparce (although it did fill up right as the movie began). This is the kind of movie that film festivals are made for. A non-US movie with little to no notoriety is the type of film that can really gain some traction at playing in a festival setting. I surely hope this happens with Michael. The small, but attentive, audience seemed entranced as it showed us these 5 months in the life of its leading chacater.
Michael Fruith stars as Michael (I find it very interesting that the character shares his name and wonder if there is a correlation here that we don’t know about). Michael is a man of few words. As the film opens we see his evening routine. He is cooking dinner alone in his tidy quaint apartment located on a snowy Austrian street. He meticulously sets the table for two. After completing the two place settings he sits down a childs glass and a caraf of Kool-Aid. He then opens a door leading down to the basement which is padded to prevent any sounds from escaping. Walking down the stairs he opens a padlocked door (painted a very bright and cheerful baby blue). Out of the darkness emerges Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), a 10 year old boy.
The two sit and eat in silence. Michael looks up at the boy a couple of times, while Wolfgang focuses solely on his food – only looking up to ask if its okay to watch television tonight. Michael responds in a fatherly manner, “Only until 9.” Television is watched and when the clock strikes 9, Michael takes Wolfgang back to the basement and locks him in for the evening. Beside the door is a circuit breaker that controls the lights inside the locked room. He shuts them off and its clear that bedtime has arrived. The film goes black and our lead characters name appears: Michael.
Its the following morning. We see Michael brushing his teeth and fixing his hair. He is silent. He gives one last look in the mirror and reaches into a cabinet grabbing a small bottle. He then methodically makes his way down to the basement. He flips the circuit on, illuminating the room. Unlocking the blue door he enters and shuts it behind him. We linger looking at the door for a moment and suddenly a quick cut and were back in the bathroom. Michael’s back is facing us as he stands at the sink and is washing his crotch. The film cuts to black and the directors name appears: Markus Schleinzer.
Giving away too much about this films plot would be a crime. So I will stray away from giving you a run down of what happens, and simply just tell you why this movie is so fantastic. First of all, its a movie that knows its dealing with a very taboo and uncomfortable topic. And because of that it treats the situation with delicacy. We never see too much, just when things seem to be going down a dark road – it cuts to the aftermath. Because that is what the movie is about. It’s not about a pedophile raping a small child, its about a man named Michael who happens to be a pedophile. He also happens to be successful at his job, he has a doting sister, and a couple of friends with whom he takes skiing vacations. The fact that he has kidnapped a small child and locked him into his basement is just one of the many facets that is disturbing and interesting about Michael. The relationship with Wolfgang itself is a very unique one. There are no cliches to be found here. Yes, he has kidnapped Wolfgang and yes he molests him. However, the two share holidays together (they even exchange gifts), Michael takes Wolfgang out on walks and to a farm so he can interact with animals, they even share the same dinner table every single night. You can see many roles play out in this relationship. At some points Michael takes on a fatherly figure to Wolfgang, at others Wolfgang is the adult in the situation where Michael turns into the silly child. Sometimes they seem as if they are unlikely friends, at others sworn enemies. The two performances by Michael Fuith and David Rauchenberger are unforgettable.
The word I can best use to describe the film is: subtle. There are so many little moments that add so many layers to the characters and the film as a whole. For example, one night after dinner the two wash the dishes. We see in a silent scene (as are many scenes in the film) showing the routine the two have formed. Michael washes and Wolfgang dries. It’s almost a dance at this point because they have been doing it for so long. There is no real plot forwarding point of putting this scene in the movie, but the director is so smart by knowing that the audience will watch it and see the routine of the chore and it will explain that this has been happening every night for a very long time. These are the kinds of scenes that get me excited! There are numerous scenes like this one which I find so unbelievably special. I am sure when I see this film for a second time I will notice more and more.
Michael Fuith brings so much to the title character. And where so many films go wrong, he provides so many layers to the character that I did feel sympathy towards Michael. Sure, he is a monster – but he is dealing with a sickness that many people all over the world are affected with. Hours after the movie ended, I was still thinking about pedophiles. Whereas the first reaction to someone who behaves in this way is one of disgust – the film made me change my first reacting to that of sadness. Here is a man who cannot find love, happiness, or pleasure (even companionship) with someone of his own age. It’s only during interactions with Wolfgang that we see any true emotion out of Michael. Sometimes its of a loving nature, sometimes of a protective nature, an aggressive nature, and in one of the films best scenes a childlike playful glee (a scene which involves a one-sided snowball fight). Its a testament to director and actor that we never see Michael truly break down. We get moments where we know its about to happen, or is happening, and then it cuts. This is a performance that will not recieve the recognition it deserves. It is too far out for the normal viewer. This saddens me, because it is the finest performance I have seen this year. It surely will land on my best of list come years end. And David Rauchenberger matches him scene-for-scene. It’s one of the best performances from a young male actor I have seen in a long time (one which most older actors will never achieve). There are supporting performances which are equally as impressive, and well worth a mention. Christine Kain shines in her couple of scenes as Michael’s mother and Ursula Strauss is heartbreaking as Michael’s sister.
The film ended quite abruptly, just as the cuts in the film came to stop from revealing too much. The audience seemed shocked at where it ended, but unlike the ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene (see my review) which seemes to make some viewers angry, this ending seemed to be just right. I haven’t seen many films like Michael and I doubt I will see another like it for a long time. I beg you to find a way to see this film if you can handle the mature material. It was an unforgettable piece of cinema, and I thank the Chicago International Film Festival for bringing it to me.
***** / out of *****
view the trailer here : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXe35bV8Owg