With all the seedy child abuse stuff in the news right now involving celebrities and Muslim men in northern working-class towns its worth pointing out how very little of it is actual pedophilia. Pedophilia is sex by a legal adult with children of 11-years of age or under or a notable five year gap between a legal adult and child and mostly done between a child and a family friend or relative. Most of this stuff in the news is simply older men exploiting younger girls between the ages of 14 and 15 for material reward and to feed their rebellion and the sort of thing that was normal in the 1950s and 1960s in the white working–class. Ask your mom and dad. Men in their 30s dated 15 and 16-year-old girls all the time. Elvis dated a 14-year-old when he was 18. A 22-year-old Jerry Lewis stepped off the plane at Heathrow with his 13-year-old bride to be, his second cousin! It always makes me grin that none of these people who come forward to claim to have been sexually abused by stars back in the day have accused anyone of note. Surely Gary Glitter wasn’t the only one in the music industry being perverted? I suspect it’s because rock stars and the great actors of the era age better and so still adored by their under age trophies. The kids also still see them as a trophy and proud that they did things with very famous people. If Madonna - hypothetically- seduced me at 15 when she was 35 I would have been very happy. Those seedy Radio One DJs and children entertainers quickly lost their celebrity cool and so therapeutic targets for the accusers when both are old and wrinkled
Michael is a much more series and chilling affair on the subject and the most ‘objective, analytic, clinical and dispassionate’ (to quote the Daily Telegraph film critic) portrayal of what a real pedophile is probably like, an adult that has to act childlike to attract children so to win their confidence to do their evil deeds, or worse. They are not Asian cabbies offering cell phone credit for a grope. A pedophile is attracted to children and the things children do. It wants to be with them the same way an adult couple do. It’s a mental illness.
The film Michael is the debut of Austrian director Markus Schleinzer (what a film to kick off with!) and has echoes of the Natascha Kampusch story, the young girl who was abducted and caged in an Austrian cellar and eventually suffered the Stockholm Syndrome, reliant on the adult they live with and so forming a psychological bond of sorts that irrationally discourages escape. That psychology of control is the films sharp punch to the ribs.
Michael (Michael Fuith) is an insurance adjustor in a busy office by day and keeps himself to himself in the evenings and at weekends. He does that because he has an innocent 10-year-old child, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), locked in his cellar behind a soundproof door in an air-conditioned and plumbed vault. We don’t know how long the rather sad and lonely looking Wolfgang has been there but the kid has been persuaded by his captor that his parents gave him away for being naughty and he is to live here now with no school or playmates, left to play with his toys and eat Potnoodles while Michael is at work. More chillingly we don’t know if there have been other boys in the purpose built unit.
Michael has fitted his house with electronic blinds that come down at night so the kid can come up and eat at the dinner table and watch TV. When the meal is finished the kid returns to his prison and the lights are turned out, when Michael enters to have his way with the boy. Sometimes Wolfgang goes out with Michael for walks in the countryside, enticingly amongst other families out and about, but doesn’t mention his incarceration to those strangers. Maybe they have boys locked in their basements? The two look like father and son, Michael more than willing to hold his hand. This is his boyfriend in his sick mind.
However long the boy has been there we join the story when the kid is getting restless and tiring of his prison and abuse. He knows what Michael does is wrong but he is a kid and just thinks he has been given away and stuck with his situation, the pictures and drawings he is allowed to send to his parents locked in a box.
Michaels disgusting secret is threatened when a female workmate announces that her relative lives across the road from him and she may pop round and say hi sometime. But when little Wolfgang falls ill due to increasingly poor hygiene in his claustrophobic prison Michael knows there will be no visit to the doctor and heads out to dig a hole in the woods just in case. These increasing variables around his subterfuge ramp up the tension as his terrible secret in his likewise twisted world becomes increasingly fragile.
This is not a film you like but just endure. It, as you would expect, a very tough watch. The opening scenes of this young boy doing his coloring in his prison cell all alone are heartbreaking. The kid is not happy or sad just alone. Michael clearly believes that the boy not only forfills his seedy sexual thrills but goes one step further and believes his captured child is his willing partner somehow. Pedophiles obviously can’t openly show their affection to child in public and so why so many captured kids end up in a ditch.
The pedophile is predictably uncharismatic pasty and plain with receding hair and wears glasses, the thirtysomething white-collar worker no one rally wants to know. It was a brave decision by the actor to take on such a sadistic typecasting role. In real life we know pedophiles come in all shapes and sizes and can be the lead singer of contemporary cool rock band or the more stereotype weirdo that was Jimmy Savile. David Rauchenberger as little Wolfgang is incredible and you do wonder what the director said to the kid to get this level of performance. How could you act such a horrific scenario without some sort of personal experience? Maybe that’s the films point that the 10-year-old actor simply doesn’t know what Wolfgang’s situation is, why it works so powerfully.
As I say it’s a hard watch and you will get cold shivers throughout. Its power is the banality of evil on display and the power Michael enjoys having this kid locked up ready to service him, sexually and emotionally. His bland looks and personality do not afford him that power and audience he craves from his piers and perhaps doesn’t want to be liked as he despises himself through his actions of controlling a child and for being born who he is. It clearly something he can’t control.
The ambiguous ending will keep you guessing and as chilling as the opening. My only critic would be it does play a little on cliché by making Michael a dull ugly man that no one wants to be around when we know pedophiles are often manipulative and outgoing to achieve access to someone else’s child. This is a film that will make you feel disturbed and also make you think, especially for the poor kids who are locked up right now in this sick world we live in.
Imdb.com – 7.0/10.0 (3.020votes)
Rottentomatos.com –81% critic’s approval
Metacriitc.com – 64% critic’s approval
Leonard Maltin Film Year Book –
Radio Times Film Year Book –
The Times –‘Intentionally unnerving from the first moments, it's a hard movie to watch, but it's also fantastically, agonizingly suspenseful’.
Film Comment Magazine –‘Objective, analytic, clinical, dispassionate-these are not words often used to describe something so engrossing and gripping’.
Empire Magazine –‘A courageous essay on the power of the childlike and the horror of dysfunctional adulthood’.
The Independent –‘This chilly, matter-of-fact portrait of a pedophile is as hard hitting as any tabloid hysteria. No solutions or explanations are offered, but sometimes nightmares are beyond comprehension’.
Little White Lies –‘Michael has been forged in the Haneke mould, treating its incendiary material with an aloof, banalising calm and withholding any overt judgment or moral standpoint.
Film4 –‘A brave, unavoidably distressing debut from Markus Schleinzer, sensitively acted and directed’.
Time Out –‘There are no easy conclusions here - no explanations. Events unfold with a random, even black comic abandon’.
Daily Telegraph –‘Schleinzer could hardly have chosen a more difficult subject, but he treats it with an unnerving simplicity, shorn of sensationalism or obvious moral cues’.
Seattle Times –‘A strange and agonizingly engrossing drama despite its repellent subject’.
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