Halfway through AFI Fest, there is no doubt in my mind that Markus Schleinzer’s Michael is one of the best films of the festival. An assured debut, Michael tells the story of a pedophile from the perspective of the pedophile and doesn’t so much sympathize but humanize a person cinema (and likewise society as a whole) usually portrays as a cartoonish monster. But make no mistake, this is not The Woodsman. This is not a film about redemption, regret, or even guilt. This is a film that almost fetishizes the mundane and creates an atmosphere where you get a glimpse at identifying the unidentifiable.
At times I felt myself rooting for our protagonist while at other times rooting for his demise. It’s a fascinating achievement from Schleinzer, Michael Haneke’s long time casting director, and it’s undeniable to see Haneke’s influence here. Schleinzer, like Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, is interested in the underbelly of lives’ hidden and prodding secrets using a first person narrative and not simply a bird’s eye view. This “zooming in” of the character alleviates obstacles of judgement that typically plague stories like this. Instead of allowing the horrible to cloud all perspective, Schleinzer cuts through all of that to reveal a portrait of a sick man who is all the more terrifying because of his normalcy.
For those who have seen the film, what are your impressions of the film and specifically, what are your thoughts on portraying a pedophile in this way? Were you able to look at Michael as a human being or is he simply an inexcusable monster who doesn’t deserve even the slightest bit of consideration? Like in Haneke’s best films, Schleinzer treats Michael in a pretty fair light and doesn’t seem to hold judgement one way or the way. Of course the end might dissuade this argument and reveal Schleinzer’s true intentions but I don’t think so. I think there’s only one true outcome for a character like Michael and Schleinzer presents it in a pretty matter-of-fact way.
I should also mention that the cold, methodical style that Schleinzer imposes (and is stylistically very similar to films like Cache and The Seventh Continent) is the perfect approach for this kind of subject matter. The static camera keeps us still and quiet even while we know what horrors are going on. It’s the stuff that isn’t said, the stuff that isn’t seen, that creates the tension and power. It’s what is implied that really haunts us and not the over-use of gimmicky camera tricks.
I also thought this was a great film. The horror of the film is the extreme banality of Michael. He is a very normal person who does not think through his horrific behavior. His behavior is just a perversion of Global North bourgeois norms. He takes what He wants (in this case a child for his twisted emotional and sexual pleasure) without regard to the damage He causes others. He simply doesn’t think through the consequences of his daily actions. His bourgeois counterparts do the same thing is a less direct way- they allow workers to be exploited, countries to be bombed and colonized, minorities to be oppressed and marginalized because they feel the need for massive levels of consumption of cheap products. They know that this leads to the oppression and even the deaths of adults and children in other nations but they reason this is worth it.
I never felt an indentification with Michael but I did feel responsible for creating a world where people like him exist. Why do people like this not get treatment before their behavior becomes life destroying? How is it that we don’t seem to notice what is happening with our co-workers and neighbors? Why do we create a world where children are so at risk? The style of the film allows the viewer to ponder these sorts of questions.
Michael is out on DVD today. It looks like Strand Releasing is not giving it a BD release but oh well, I’ll take it on DVD!