Film Review: MichaelThe Banality of Evil gets full cinematic treatment in this skillfully made but unpleasant film.
Michael “rips from the headlines” the kind of story we hear all too often about abducted children living for years in the basements of their captors. To his credit, director Markus Schleinzer refrains from exploiting the situation and has turned his concept into more of a sociological essay than a character study. If viewers are able to get past the grim premise, they will be rewarded with an interesting movie.
In Schleinzer’s story, Michael (Michael Fuith) seems to be an ordinary insurance salesman living as a bachelor in his house in Vienna. What his family and colleagues don’t know is that the stoic Michael has imprisoned a ten-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger) in his home and is treating him like a slave. Though Michael is somewhat antisocial and never invites anyone into his house, no one is curious about his private life. Meanwhile, the little boy grows increasingly angry and agitated about the psychological and sexual abuse. After Michael is given a promotion at work and seems happier about himself than ever, an incident with the boy leads to an unexpected conclusion to the ordeal.
Michael is at its best depicting how we never really know other people, even those closest to us. Schleinzer juxtaposes scenes between Michael and the boy with scenes between Michael and those in the outside world and the contrast is stark, chilling and, in the darkest way, somewhat humorous. Similarly, scenes of abuse are followed by scenes of religious piety. Thankfully, the story’s worst moments of pedophilia are not shown, as they occur off-screen, though one must feel sympathy for the child actor, David Rauchenberger, having been pushed as far as he goes. In this one way, Schleinzer could be faulted for a kind of abuse himself. (Sadly, this treatment of child actors is nothing new.)
Schleinzer’s technique (aided by cinematographer Gerald Kerkletz and a great sound-design team) uses detached, still takes to create his grotesque “family scrapbook,” so it is best not to seek out character subjectivity or understanding. However, the lack of music, visual stylization or overt moralizing helps to make the scenes disturbingly convincing. Ultimately, it is the performances of the two leads that set the film apart as a memorable and significant work. Fuith and Rauchenberger might even be just too good—the film is that hard to watch at times.