With the recent cases of Natascha Kampusch and Georg Fritzl still fresh in the collective memory, debuting Austrian director Markus Schleinzer is not afraid to take on his difficult subject matter of a pedophile locking a young boy in his basement, which should prove cathartic on home ground, and is most likely to chill audiences all around. Adopting an observing, formalist style, Schleinzer puts his focus on the titular pedophile (played by Michael Fuith). He does so without the redundancy of being judgemental, trusting the audience to project their own feelings about the proceedings the right way. Instead, Schleinzer poses the question of what separates men from monsters. Moments in which Michael and his captive Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) act together in an almost family-like dynamic, washing dishes together or going to a petting zoo, make a scene where a lusting Michael eyes Wolfgang from the boy’s bed all the more creepy. The two of them putting a new bunk bed together seems inconspicuous (they work really well together), but seeing Michael prowling for new prey in a go-kart centre right after that shows the monster in the man again, the end of the scene being particularly nerve-wracking.
Schleinzer wisely leaves out any actual scenes of abuse. They are merely implied, resulting in a more unnerving effect on the viewer. Shock is not what the director is after, as he is clearly more interested in his predator. Unassuming insurance salesman Michael has a seemingly normal worklife, goes to lunch with his sister, or takes a skiing trip with two pals. He likes to keep a bit to himself, but surely this is not the kind of man who would do unspeakable things to children? A lesser director would probably have given the protagonist a more visible evil streak, but Schleinzer manages to restrain himself with a level of self-control comparable to that of his protagonist. He tells very much by showing very little, always allowing the audience to connect the dots. He is helped by a fantastic Fuith, who refrains from any mannerisms or tics that other actors perhaps would have gone for. Instead he clues the audience in on his character at everyday moments, blowing a massive fuse when unable to get up after a skiing fall, or showing irritation when he cannot ‘perform’ with a woman. The young boy is played with convincing vulnerability by Rauchenberger, in a role that must not have been easy to understand by a kid his age. Of course, Schleinzer is a casting veteran, and his work in such films as Das weiße Band has shown that he has a knack for working with young children.
The sparse narrative does not shy away from daring to be funny, no mean feat considering the subject matter. There is very little excess in the script, another nice parallel to Michael’s life. A utilitarian sound design, a simple but effective use of framing and light, and spotless production design make the world of Michael and Wolfgang one without much warmth or love, underlining the real nature of their relationship. The use of music is rare, and at times both funny and unsettling (notice where Boney M’s “Sunny” is cut off, and then the next shot). In all, Michael is yet another impressive debut from a director here at Cannes. For all the complaints about the festival going safe, Cannes shows it can still spot new hot talent.