Is that the sound of the Austrian Tourist Board pulling down the blinds and shutting up shop? Austrian writer-director Markus Schleinzer brings the grim spirit of the country’s notorious child kidnappings to the screen with his debut film, ‘Michael’. The atmosphere is every bit as repressive and foreboding as earlier stories of domestic terror by his compatriots Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl – both of whom Schleinzer has collaborated with in his work as a casting director.
Intimate and unsensational observation is the style Schleinzer adopts in this creepy and glacial study of Michael (Michael Futih), a fictional kidnapper who keeps a young boy (David Rauchenberger) in his basement while maintaining a banal life as an office drone. Schleinzer’s perspective is rigorously on the side of the kidnapper as we follow Michael not just during trips to the basement to feed and check on his charge and less frequent outings to the zoo or forest, but also to his workplace and the mountains for a skiing trip with pals.
Schleinzer holds back from showing anything explicit, but shares the nightmare of abuse through suggestion: the sight of Michael washing his genitals in a sink is horrific enough. The film is reminiscent of Haneke’s ‘The Seventh Continent’ in the way it looks to locate desperate behaviour in the context of a repressed society. Even the wallpaper and furniture seem to scream faceless perversion and, as in Haneke’s work, the television in the living room is a numbing, sinister presence. Depravity sits side by side with mundanity, so that the more time we spend with Michael, the more it’s hard to unpick one from the other. There are no easy conclusions here – no explanations. Events unfold with a random, even black comic abandon. The mood is anti-climactic, and Schleinzer concludes his tale in a deflating fashion – which makes the explosion of Boney M’s ‘Sunny’ over the credits all the more peculiar and arresting. You’ll be humming it for weeks.