Michael

Michael

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Michael is 35. He's thin, balding, wears unremarkable clothes, eats unremarkable food. He works for an insurance company where he is friendly, if not close, with his colleagues. He drives an ordinary car and lives in a small suburban house. In the basement of that house, he is keeping a ten-year-old boy.

Following the high-profile cases of Wolfgang Priklopil and Josef Fritzl, who kept prisoners in their basements for years whilst sexually abusing them, there has been an outpouring of scientific papers and speculative press articles trying to understand the psychology of such people. If we see them as monsters, it's much easier for us to distance them from ourselves, though the question of why we don't notice them becomes more difficult to answer. But research tells us they are not monsters, or not so you'd notice - they are unremarkable people like Michael who just happen to enjoy abusing others.


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We all know people like Michael. Statistically, the chances are that most of us know people who are abusers. And, of course, there will probably be abusers among the audience for this film. They are unlikely to find anything in it that will either comfort or excite them. This is the perfect antidote to all that sensationalism. Though it shows Michael's ordinariness, it doesn't make excuses for anybody. Deliberately disengaged in a manner that parallels the psychological defences of both Michael and his captive, it observes matters with unflinching persistence. We don't need to see what goes on when Michael has entered the boy's room and closed the door; its significance is clearly visible in the details of their domestic interaction.

Theirs is a domestic relationship. They eat together, they do housework together. Michael buys occasional gifts for the boy. The boy asks for permission to watch TV. It's difficult to gauge how much the boy understands about the import of his situation. What is clear is that he is desperately unhappy, and vulnerable in more ways than as a victim of Michael's actions, and that, despite his superficial niceness, Michael just doesn't give a shit. In its understated way, the film rips away the myth that a victim's co-operation might to some degree justify abuse, just as it demolishes the idea that Michael's actions might in any way be motivated by love.

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It may seem shocking to some that such ideas need to be challenged, and that's just one more way in which the film creates discomfort. Quietly, in the background, details become almost too horrible to watch. Michael chatting to boys at a motor sports event; later, asking questions about a boarding school. The boy in the basement playing with his toys, David Rauchenberger's vivid yet naturalistic performance reminding us that he is just a child. He doesn't run, he doesn't try to get help, because he is vulnerable in far more than just a physical way. But he is growing up, and small fault lines of tension are beginning to form, potentially threatening both the inhabitants of the house.

A timely and important film that traverses difficult territory with sensitivity and real insight, this is no easy watch, but it is an admirable piece of work.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2012
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A look at the day to day life of an unremarkable man who is keeping a ten year old boy prisoner in his basement.
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Director: Markus Schleinzer

Writer: Markus Schleinzer

Starring: Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger

Year: 2011

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Austria


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