This film about a child predator includes some wholly unanticipated accidents, brutal and horrendous and even comic in their suddenness.
I am interested in these self-created idylls, which are presented as "natural" and "normal" -- because for me they also pry open the normality and everyday life that I live in.
"Can I watch telly tonight?" Ten-year-old Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) sits quietly at the dinner table, his gaze fixed on the man opposite him, Michael (Michael Fuith). The camera shows Michael as the boy speaks, carefully cutting and chewing his food, not looking back at Wolfgang. "Till nine," comes the answer, as he uses his knife to smooth a bit of mashed potato perfectly onto his fork. The camera cuts back to Wolfgang, now looking down at his own plate, cutting and chewing.
In another movie, this scene might indicate the ways a child imitates or respects a parent, what might be understood in the mirrored movements or changing gazes. But in Michael -- opening at Film Forum on 15 February -- this early scene is already disturbing. For you've seen the boy led to the table from out of a dark basement room, from behind a door with a security bar and multiple locks. In this scene just before dinner, Michael appears as a torso only, the camera level with Wolfgang's height as he emerges from blackness.
Behind him, in that basement room, you see shortly after, is the boy's room, where he has books on a shelf, a sink and toilet, some instant noodles and crackers. Wolfgang spends his days here, long hours he passes mostly off screen. When you do see him, he's drawing at a small desk, watching water heat for his noodles, or writing a letter that he folds carefully and slips into an envelope. He imagines Michael will send the letter on to his parents, whom Wolfgang imagines miss him as he misses them.
Or so you imagine. It's difficult to say exactly what the child feels, as Michael keeps a close focus on Michael's experience -- his evenings on the couch with TV light flickering over his face, day job in an office, where he's on the phone discussing "policies" with clients, or his excursions to the supermarket, or even a ski vacation with coworkers. You see Michael wash his face and brush his teeth, take out the trash and then enter the boy's room at night, closing the door behind him. You know Michael has stolen Wolfgang, and keeps him to use as he wants. You know also that Michael walks daily among people -- including his sister -- who don't suspect his secret, or even that he might have one.
That secret does leave the room occasionally, as when the two visit a park. But here Wolfgang is almost immediately sick, puking by the side of a path. Here Michael is alternately harsh and tender, leading Wolfgang brusquely by the arm then patting his back as they lean away from the camera, standing at the back of the frame. This brief scene is interrupted when a girl walks through the foreground of the shot. She pauses and asks after the child's health, and you catch your breath, anticipating that she'll discover something, that she'll see the boy is a victim in need of rescue. But she walks on, leaving the apparently normal adult and child to their business.
This is the horror at Michael's center, as Markus Schleinzer says of his first feature. Observing the boy's efforts to resist and the man's efforts to contain him, or rather, to maintain the normality he imagines. Michael's placid surface does give way sometimes, as when he's alone on the ski resort's mountainside, floundering and beating at the muffling snow, furious, uncontrolled, and, you imagine though you can't see his face, fearful.
Not seeing or hearing his background, what he thinks he's doing or why he's doing it, you project repeatedly while watching Michael, your guesses based on other movies, perhaps, or TV programs about how predators perform their monstrosity or see themselves. The monstrosity here is intimated more than exposed, though the effect is more chilling for that.
Michael listens to a TV report on missing children, half horrified ("This uncertainty is often the hardest" for parents, intones an expert talking head). Or he sits on the boy's bed and pats it, or purchases a bunk bed with the unspoken promise that he'll bring back a friend for Wolfgang. As Michael heads out on his hunt, at a local miniature car racing track, you anticipate the worst, knowing at the same that Wolfgang yearns for companionship. The film includes as well some wholly unanticipated accidents, brutal and horrendous and even comic in their suddenness.
And so Michael becomes a movie about watching movies, a series of questions about how you're drawn into suspense, hope for worst as much as best, feel for multiple characters at once. These questions have to do with your perception of surfaces as well as your engagement with story, your emotional commitments and your capacity for distance. And they're disturbing in their own ways.