Picking at the pieces
This stark, forensic portrayal of a paedophile and his victim is a serious film that demands attention, writes Donald Clarke
WHEN APPROACHING an Austrian film, the informed viewer knows not to expect too many dancing penguins or clowns in exploding cars. In recent decades, directors such as Ulrich Seidl, Götz Spielmann and the great Michael Haneke have delivered some of the grimmest films ever to darken the arthouse.
That said, veterans of Austria’s cinema may still be taken aback by the quiet misery of Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut. Long established as the country’s most prestigious casting director, Schleinzer has bravely elected to tackle certain notorious incidents in recent Austrian history.
Michael concerns a withdrawn, evasive paedophile who has imprisoned a young boy in his sterile basement. You don’t (or shouldn’t) tackle this sort of
material without thinking long and hard. The finished project, though predictably disturbing, turns out to be a model of responsible filmmaking. Shot in cold light using a mobile camera, Michael never strays into gratuitous explicitness or inappropriate sensationalism. It comes across as a sober reflection on a topic that we generally try to avoid considering too deeply.
The story is simple. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a drone in a blank, forbidding office. Every day he returns from work, closes the metal shutters on his windows, passes into his dungeon and escorts young Wolfgang upstairs for an evening of horrid food and tense conversation. In one chilling moment, after spending time in the basement, we see him making a check mark in a ledger. What has occurred is all too clear.
The relationship is a perverse variation on what goes on between father and son. Michael disciplines the boy, tends to his essential needs and encourages him to do his chores. But nothing like affection ever passes between them.
As the picture progresses, the protagonist runs into a series of complications. The boy falls ill. Michael gets hit by a car and has to spend several days in hospital. He has a sordid fling with a work colleague who makes the mistake of visiting him at home.
Though the film could never be mistaken for a genre piece, Schleinzer very craftily, very quietly wracks up the tension during these incidents. The fate of the boy is always lurking at the back of the viewers’ minds.
Michael has, perhaps inevitably, already attracted criticism. Some have remarked that the film focuses all its attention on the perpetrator and refuses to dig into the victim’s character. It is, however, too easy to play to an audience’s better instincts and construct such a film around a vulnerable hero. Most of us can’t hope to understand that degree of suffering and it would be glib to pretend that we can. A cool procedural approach is surely the more appropriate way to proceed.
There have also been suggestions that the film takes a non-judgmental approach to its title character. This is an empty argument. No reasonable person will view the film without coming to his or her own inevitable conclusions about the wretchedness of Michael’s actions. We don’t require an authorial voice to tell us that the man has stepped far beyond the bounds of decent behaviour.
Still, one might reasonably ask why viewers would wish to subject themselves to such a gruelling experience. On a superficial level, the film works as a thoughtful, existential melodrama. The final scenes, in particular, have an appallingly disturbing momentum.
But Michael does have undeniable moral purpose. It forces us to ponder the way society chooses – another easy option – to comfortingly reclassify such perpetrators as monsters. Humans do extraordinarily bad things. In most ways, however, even the most appalling villain remains depressingly ordinary. WHAT A strange career Marc Evans has had. After emerging with violent films such as Resurrection Man and My Little Eye, the Welshman moved on to a drama concerning autism (Snow Cake) and a documentary about miscarriages of justice (In Prison My Whole Life). Now, he has knocked together a charming film set in the long hot summer of 1976.
Even his best friends would struggle to deny that Hunky Dory feels a tad familiar: a hit US television series has dealt with school students finding redemption through popular song, and the setting casts up memories of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s unsatisfactory Cemetery Junction. But the film is so winningly played and so drenched in heat-haze nostalgia that it’s hard to resist.
Minnie Driver plays a liberated teacher – all flowing fabric and flyaway hair – attempting to stage a rock version of The Tempest in a working-class Welsh school. It hardly needs to be said that stuffy colleagues regard her efforts as impossibly dangerous. Sure enough, the lead actor soon becomes attracted to his director and the girl playing Miranda gets involved in a series of interlocking romantic triangles. A gang of racist skinheads (incorporating, rather too inevitably, the play’s Caliban) circles menacingly in the scorched undergrowth.
We twig we’re not watching the era’s most subtle film when, in the opening scene, the most sensitive boy in school announces that his favourite musician is David Bowie. (Now, what secret can he be hiding?) And some of the dialogue – “He’s lost the plot, big time” – feels more than a little anachronistic.
These quibbles do not, however, diminish the delightful ambience established by Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camerawork and Joby Talbot’s winning musical arrangements. The film-makers may, perhaps, have been listening to the recordings of contemporaneous children collected on The Langley Schools Music Project LP. The versions of tunes such as Life on Mars and Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) manage that same combination of fragility and uncertainty.
It’s all very lovely and very sad. Cynics need not apply. Aging softies will almost certainly yield to Evans’s warm sensibilities.
Unfunny games: the Austrian film Michael