In Michael, Markus Schleinzer’s exploration of the relationship between a thirtysomething man and the boy he’s keeping captive in his basement, the director uses coolly precise, largely static framings to convey the emotional isolation of the eponymous sex criminal (Michael Fuith) and the sense of confinement experienced by his victim (David Rauchenberger). Schleinzer’s chilly formalism serves several other purposes as well: it creates a sense of menace and foreboding, especially via the ample silences on the soundtrack; it reflects the methodical approach to the daily routine adhered to by Michael (when it shows signs of cracking, the camera setups become less stationary); and it ensures the absence of both lurid sensationalism and character identification.
This last function is the most problematic element in a film that has no shortage of problems. Eschewing anything that might reek of exploitation, Schleinzer treads lightly, employing oblique glimpses of the characters and playing it especially coy on matters of sexual abuse. (We don’t know for sure the nature of the central relationship until we see Michael washing his cock in a sink. Schleinzer doesn’t give us the rape, just a glimpse of the aftermath.)
But a (relatively) tasteful and restrained approach to potentially lurid subject matter isn’t necessarily any better than one that gives in freely to what might be seen as a filmmaker’s baser impulses. For one thing, Schleinzer’s distanced anti-psychological methodology threatens to render the film little more than a dismal formal exercise. What’s lost in the restraint is any wider understanding of the characters or what’s significant about their interactions. To be sure, we learn something of Michael’s family and professional life (both surprisingly normal), but any efforts to further penetrate into the headspace of this seemingly conventional man (he doesn’t like to talk to co-workers and he can’t get it up with a woman) seem like obvious and unilluminating attempts to fill in the psychological gaps. Similarly, though we see something of the shifting dynamic of captor and captive (moments of play and fatherly solicitude alternate with icy exchanges), there’s not enough here to hint at more than a perfunctory sense of how these two interact.
Furthermore, by treating his hot subject matter with cool detachment, Schleinzer depersonalizes his portrait of criminality, turning his on-screen victim into little more than a kicking, screaming cipher whose sufferings, while not exploited, are nonetheless diminished to the stuff of clinical observation. But all this seems in total keeping with the filmmaker’s pessimistic worldview, a way of looking at the universe in which bad things (getting hit by a car, getting in a car crash) happen out of nowhere, simply at the whim of whatever capricious force (or controlling director) stands in for god. It also reflects a view of the cinema, if not the world, in which victims of pedophilia are fair game for a punch-line-that-doesn’t-quite-come during a late-film exercise in suspense and inevitability. It’s only in this final act that Schleinzer’s unabashed cynicism—and his genuine unconcern with his characters and their situation—becomes fully apparent.