Michael, the debut film from writer and director Markus Schleinzer, plays directly into the memory of a couple of recent high profile abduction and paedophilia cases, both of which took place in Austria and both of which involved a man keeping children locked in a basement for years. The film, which in its deadpan way is horribly engrossing, presents an ordinary, articulate, high-functioning man who spends his days working in a bland office dealing with insurance claims before coming home to feed, entertain, and occasionally sexually abuse the ten year old boy he keeps locked up in a self-contained apartment beneath his house. One hard to make out medium-distance shot aside there’s almost nothing explicit or violent here, but the film is as deserving of its 18 certificate as the schlockiest of exploitation movies just for the images and implications it conjures up in one’s imagination.
The film is carried by Michael Fuith as the title character and he’s as average and unthreatening in appearance as any balding bespectacled middle manager you could think of. Initially in fact he’s almost sympathetic, but hints of his predatory nature and coldbloodedness start to emerge fairly quickly, and the horror of the situation is if anything heightened by the matter-of-fact, non-sensational way events of presented. Just to add to the queasiness there are one or two subtle touches of black comedy, which also underline the impression that in some of its sequences the film is a twisted satire on family life: between abusing the boy and leaving him locked up for days on end with a supply of pot noodles while he goes on a skiing trip Michael seems to take pride in sending the boy to bed at a reasonable hour, taking him out for an occasional trip to the country, and making sure there’s a proper Christmas tree in the basement for the pair of them to sing “Silent Night” in front of. Some of the techniques the man uses for establishing his control over the boy aren’t too far removed from what you might observe in a regular family set-up.
There’s only so much of this kind of stuff a viewer can take, and mercifully the film doesn’t overplay the nastiness, with scenes showing Michael functioning perfectly adequately in normal life breaking up those set in the house. Eventually a chain of events (some inevitable, some shocking) occurs to bring things to a head and the film closes on a sequence depicting some utterly mundane activities that manages to be stomach-clenchingly gripping. You’re pretty grateful that the end credits kick in when they do. Michael is far from family viewing but is highly accomplished in the way it deals with a very sensitive topic with objectivity and dark humour.