Editor’s note: This review was originally published as part of our Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage on October 11, 2011. But since most of you have not yet had the chance to watch the devil himself practice good dental hygiene (and because the film is hitting limited theaters this Friday, February 17), we’re re-posting it here for your…enjoyment?
Masterpieces tend to be weighty. They tend to aggravate and enthrall both during the runtime and once the credits have rolled. They tend to have a heft that makes them difficult to carry even though they demand to live in your gut for months or years afterward.
On that front, and on many others, Michael defies the rules and expectations by being a shockingly breezy masterwork. Make that a shockingly breezy masterwork about a pedophile with a young boy locked in his basement.
Writer/director Markus Schleinzer has created a film that shoves all of the horrifying elements into your imagination without ever delivering the goods visually. It’s an incredible feat that makes its mark from the opening scene where our villain returns his dumpy self to his dumpy home and visits the cub scout he keeps locked away. They eat dinner, they watch a little television, and the scene cuts to a shot so suggestive post-act that it makes everything far, far too clear for comfort. This is the primary technique of the rougher segments of the movie, and it works with a stark skill that streamlines the nightmare.
Michael Fuith commands the screen as Michael – a middle aged nobody who is remarkable in his plainness. He keeps quiet at work even though he excels at what he does. He is neat and tidy around the house. He regularly molests a 10-year-old house prisoner. All part of the ho-hum tedium of Michael’s life. However, the young boy, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), manages to be an even more compelling character, standing at the center as either the heart of the film or the thing that stabs that heart.
The story, as a whole, would be dreadfully boring on its own. It’s mostly comprised of scenes of a pasty guy eating dinner, brushing his teeth, shopping, going to work, singing in his car, and generally being a suburbanite drone. It’s a cinema verite style that’s transformed by his singular character trait of active pedophilia. Everything becomes fascinating because of the unthinkable hobby Michael takes part in, and the level of dedication he has to it. It becomes like watching Hitler sing disco music in the car, like watching Satan brush his teeth.
In that sense, it’s a bit emotionally confusing. Since Michael is the main subject, and since there’s never anyone in the film to judge him, it’s easy to forget his evil while watching his acts of banality. There are even moments that are laugh out loud funny. Still, Schleinzer shows such skill as a filmmaker that he can ease you into those moments or choose to slap you out of them by following them up with something soul pounding.
Fortunately, it never gets negatively manipulative. It’s true that Schleinzer has us right where he wants us, but it’s never done callously or with cheap tricks. The mark of careful skill is on display here as he smashes a hammer against a locked basement door and creates something truly delicate. It’s also a testament to Schleinzer’s years of experience as a casting director that he found Fuith and Rauchenberger. The other characters (though solidly acted) are filler. Fuith is engaging with his subtlety (and with his ability to explode when the situation calls for it), and Rauchenberger astounds as a child actor who creates nuance and texture to a character who could have easily been mopey and flat.
The very definition of the film comes in a scene at dinner between these two wondrously talented actors. It involves a question and an answer that wraps up the feeling and intent of Michael in a crisp package. The scene is hilarious and terribly sad all at once. It displays Michael’s true nature and the point where Wolfgang has been brought to against his will. It’s also short, sweet and as clean-cut as any other moment – yet it’s still brimming with meaning and a cringe-worthy sense of humanity.
Michael is not a bombastic masterpiece. Everything about it is as quiet as your neighbor next door. That’s what makes it so damned effective. Schleinzer and company offer us a brief window into the boring life of a man who deserves to be beaten to death with wrenches, but somehow it’s the dull moments that are most telling for this monster. It’s so frighteningly everyday that it’s like being punched after a warm hug.
The Upside: A beautiful, disturbing movie told with simplicity and stellar acting.
The Downside: I’d be nitpicking to find one. The quick-in, quick-out editing can become repetitive by the end, maybe, but really the movie is a pure masterwork.
On the Side: Michael features the best use of a disco-era song of all time.