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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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

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