Absolutely no excuse
Markus Schleinzer’s movie about a paedophile who keeps a young boy incarcerated is an extraordinary piece of work: unsettling, dispassionate, grimly humorous. Donald Clarke talks to the Austrian director
ONE CAN’T imagine the Austrian tourism authorities were overjoyed when Michael, Markus Schleinzer’s first film as director, was accepted into the main competition at Cannes. Over the past few years, a number of disturbing cases have emerged involving the systematic abuse of young people by Austrian men. We remember the grim story of Natascha Kampusch’s imprisonment. Then there were the unimaginable horrors perpetuated in Josef Fritzl’s basement. Stand-up comics have, in the aftermath, enjoyed exploiting a new negative stereotype of Austrian society.
Schleinzer, hitherto Austria’s busiest casting director, has done little to rehabilitate the country’s reputation by writing and directing a film about a paedophile who keeps a young boy incarcerated in his own sterile basement. It’s an extraordinary piece of work: unsettling, dispassionate, grimly humorous.
So, what on earth is going on? Do these cases tell us something about the nation or have we just endured a tragic series of unlikely coincidences?
“I don’t think the prime theme is unique to Austria,” Schleinzer says cautiously. “But maybe the way the cases are handled says something about Austrian society. The issue is how we deal with perpetrators. It may be cheap, but you have to talk about the second World War. Hitler appealed to us. But then we claimed to be the victims after the war. Until the late 1970s, there were still Nazis in government.”
A calm, witty man, Schleinzer thinks that a strain in Austrian society never quite learned how to cope with people who do terrible things. “Yes. Look, it’s much easier to deal with victims. But it’s hard to deal with perpetrators. ‘Oh I gave some money. I did something for victims’. It’s much more painful to deal with perpetrators.”
He goes on to paraphrase the traditional, unhelpful ways neighbours react when a serial killer or ritual abuser is identified. He was a very quiet man. He never caused any trouble. Then, after a while, the perpetrator is reinvented as a class of alien. He is a different species to we decent people.
Michael does not take this line. The protagonist of the piece is nobody’s idea of a loveable rogue, but Schleinzer does allow us to see him as a fleshy, unremarkable working Joe. The most unsettling aspect of his personality is his ordinariness. Meanwhile, we learn surprisingly little about the unfortunate victim.
“No. It is too easy to make the victim the hero. I was lucky. Thanks to my excellent parents, I have no contact with childhood abuse. Who am I to tell a story from that perspective? It is harder to ask the perpetrator: ‘How does what you have done relate to society?’ But I am not seeking excuses for his actions. They cannot be excused.”
Michael is an extraordinarily thoughtful film about an unapproachable subject. Schleinzer’s seriousness of purpose seeps through every grim frame. But the picture does reinforce certain unhelpful perceptions about Austrian culture. No other nation boasts (if that is the word) such a relentlessly grim national cinema. Schleinzer’s frequent collaborator Michael Haneke has given us such brilliantly disturbing films as Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and Hidden. Haneke’s work seems, however, positively jolly when set beside the films of Ulrich Seidl or Götz Spielmann. Following the screening of Michael at Cannes, Mike D’angelo, chief film critic at Esquire, attracted attention by tweeting: “What the fuck is wrong with everyone in Austria? Seriously.”
“We do have our comedy,” Schleinzer says with a dry laugh. “Maybe just one a year. But we do have one. But what you describe is very much the film festival view of Austria. We have our mainstream. I can’t understand why they say we make ‘ feel-bad movies’. They don’t make me feel bad. They make me think. It’s a small country, just seven million people. So there is no point trying to appeal to a mass audience. We have to go our own way.”
It hardly needs to be said that Schleinzer does not come across as any kind of maniac. Raised in a middle-class family, he was lucky to have had a theatre fanatic as a mother. She dragged him along to plays as a child and he gradually developed an obsession with the performing arts. Eventually, he stumbled into the obscure world of casting direction. Almost every Austrian film that has made it to these shores over the past decade has Schleinzer’s name in the credits.
As he explains it, the job changes definition as you move from director to director. Michael Haneke involved Schleinzer in every aspect of the production. Their biggest challenge came when they attempted to find a cast of children for the historical drama The White Ribbon.
“We had such a hard time. Michael offered me the role not just of casting the kids – we saw about 7,000 of them – but also leading them through the day when we were shooting. Michael saw how I worked and said: ‘Right. Go on and make your own movie. I will give you three months and then I want to see a script’. The old fox did not forget. After three months he demanded to see it.”
Schleinzer had been particularly appalled by the “cheap” way the media treated Natascha Kampusch. Detained for eight years by Wolfgang Priklopil, she refused to behave as was expected. She was, he believes, punished for being strong and rejecting attempts to portray her as permanently damaged victim. Schleinzer sat down and attempted to write a rigorous treatment of a similar case. His first draft attracted immediate interest. Now, he had to cast a child in the role of the blank, terrified victim.
“I wrote a synopsis that listed the whole story. I left nothing out. A great many people then didn’t show up. But about 800 kids did turn up,” he says.
So, David Rauchenberger, the boy who got the part, understood exactly what was going on? “After filming I showed his parents the film and asked if there was anything they wanted cut out. I didn’t want him to have bad dreams later. But you forget that his generation has a gift we hadn’t had. They had a psychiatrist come into their school and say: ‘You must not get into cars with strange men who want to show you a pet’. I was raised in Austria in the 1970s and we were told that adults are always right.”
Michael received a predictably divided response at Cannes. One sensed that, wary of saying the wrong thing, too many critics feigned vague, unfocused disapproval. But, for the most part, it was recognised as a responsible engagement with incendiary material. He must have encountered some troubling responses over the intervening months.
“I have had several victims come up to me and ask for advice. I have a list of people they can talk to,” he says. “But I also had two paedophiles call me and say: ‘I am glad you showed that not everybody who loves a 12year-old boy is a criminal’. In one case I could see the telephone number on my mobile. I called the police and said: ‘It might be a sick joke, but put this man on your list’.”
That must have been very disturbing. “Oh yes, of course. But, making a movie like this, I have to take what comes. If I wanted to make a film that would generate just happy applause, I would have made something else.” You have been warned.
Two images from Michael. Below: director Markus Schleinzer