Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

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mfunk9786
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Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#1 Post by mfunk9786 » Sat Oct 22, 2011 1:52 am

Well, here's a film that, in some cosmic way, needed to be made. Markus Schleinzer, after brilliant casting and on-set work with child actors (most notably those in The White Ribbon, who were unnervingly pitch-perfect), turns his astute eye to an enemy of children - well, an enemy of humanity. Michael tells the story of its titular character, a well-mannered insurance worker with a spectacularly unspectacular home - aside from the child he's abducted and stowed away in his basement. Wolfgang, a ten-year-old boy, spends his time behind a heavily dead-bolted door in a terribly sad fusion of pediatrician's office and child's bedroom that's been built for him (likely prior to his arrival). Michael calls Wolfgang up for dinner, lets him watch television from time to time, makes sure he's fed and stimulated - and of course, rapes him whenever the mood strikes. Inspired by the Josef Fritzl case that gripped Austria, where this film is set, Michael creates a heavy nausea that sticks with the viewer throughout the film, and a suspense that comes from very mundane places. Wolfgang spends his time writing letters to his parents, which Michael stashes away and reminds the child that his parents have already forgotten about their missing boy. The film takes some measured twists and turns, and I'd dare not spoil what eventually transpires, but I take it some viewers will be shocked by how deliberately very difficult material is presented to great effect. Much like the recent crossover child abuse hit Dogtooth (I kid), Michael shows us an unorthodox world in which a child is used as a pawn in an adult's selfish and sick personal chess game - and challenges us to see the world through both Wolfgang and Michael's eyes. It is an excellently shot and perfectly acted film that will hopefully find an audience - why? Well, maybe we all need to be reminded that as much as some want to create a textbook definition of "evil," sometimes it can be found not only where we least suspect it - but where we'd never even think to consider that it could exist.
Last edited by mfunk9786 on Fri Mar 02, 2012 2:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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colinr0380
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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2011)

#2 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Oct 22, 2011 6:56 am

mfunk9786 wrote:Much like the recent crossover child abuse hit Dogtooth (I kid), Michael shows us an unorthodox world in which a child is used as a pawn in an adult's selfish and sick personal chess game - and challenges us to see the world through both Wolfgang and Michael's eyes.
While it is not about children, perhaps Project Nim is the crossover abuse hit - a film about another being who is seen as attractive and used for the purposes of others whilst they are young but presumably will be abandoned once they grow up.

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warren oates
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Re: The Films of 2012

#3 Post by warren oates » Fri Mar 02, 2012 1:58 pm

Caught the short run of Marcus Schleinzer's Michael at Cinefamily/Silent Movie in Los Angeles last weekend. The film is basically a...
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...pedophile procedural in which the protagonist attempts to keep his kept kidnapped boy in the basement. Based on a few recent cases in Austria.
So with pretty much the most detestable, least relatable protagonist in the history of cinema short of Adolf Hitler, what makes us keep watching? It's the fact that, unlike every other character in the film, the audience shares his dark secret and we need so badly for him to get caught. In a weird way it's like a reversal of the dynamics of a more conventional thriller, in which only the hero knows the truth and we're rooting for the truth to out because it's right and it will save him. In Michael as long as the hero keeps getting away with it, every moment matters. Even the most mundane interactions are fraught with tension and dread, which makes for an unexpectedly gripping film.

Also a harrowing and authentic study of the psychopath next door, someone driven by private fantasies of power and control for whom every other human is either a plaything or an obstacle. One of a handful of the most deeply disturbing and despairing films I've ever seen, along with Aleksandr Rogozhkin's The Chekist, Pasolini's Salo and Michael Haneke's Benny's Video.

Not surprising given that this film was directed by Haneke's longtime casting director. In its austerity, obliqueness and minimalism and even in some of the visual strategies, Michael is clearly very much indebted to Haneke, but I'd say in the best possible way. This film isn't ersatz Haneke, it's more like the sort of film he might have made himself about this issue 10-15 years ago. Not bad at all for a feature debut.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#4 Post by puxzkkx » Fri Mar 02, 2012 5:04 pm

I thought this was in kind of bad taste. First 10 minutes seem to be setting up a de(re?)construction of this 'monster' character type, more intent on dehumanising it further than humanising it, an interesting angle. But after a while it just settles into the same rut of dry compositions and 'cinema of discomfort' clichés. And the finale is simply cruel, an offhand dip into 'suspense' that is at odds with the rest of the film and a really sour note to end on. He's obviously learned from some of the best but I don't think Schleinzer is there yet.

It didn't help my enjoyment of the film that I saw it at a film festival screening with only about 15 other people, most of whom actually looked like pedophiles. It was kind of uncomfortable.

ETA: I thought David Rauchenberger was brilliant - Michael Fuith was fine but his casting was so on-the-nose.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#5 Post by warren oates » Fri Mar 02, 2012 5:28 pm

puxzkkx wrote:I thought this was in kind of bad taste. First 10 minutes seem to be setting up a de(re?)construction of this 'monster' character type, more intent on dehumanising it further than humanising it, an interesting angle. But after a while it just settles into the same rut of dry compositions and 'cinema of discomfort' clichés. And the finale is simply cruel, an offhand dip into 'suspense' that is at odds with the rest of the film and a really sour note to end on. He's obviously learned from some of the best but I don't think Schleinzer is there yet.
Well, this is hearsay, but on the IMDb boards for this film someone who saw it in Berlin said they were at a Q&A where the director was asked about the ending and said he choose to end the film the way he did because it was precisely the moment in time when the character Michael ceased to exert control over the situation. For the study of a character who could only understand life as a means to power/control, this is hardly a thoughtlessly cruel ending. Btw, the director supposedly also said that for him
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it was obvious that the boy survived and meant no confusion for the audience on that point.
I don't think this film is operating on the humanising/dehumanising scale at all with respect to its main character. That's part of what's so disturbing and I'd argue so un-cliche about it. It presents an ordinary psychopath hidden behind his veneer of normalcy with almost documentary fidelity. The director says he ran this script by experts in the study of sexual predators and it shows.

I've seen plenty of Bresson-lite and lately Haneke type rip-offs, but this isn't one of them. It's a more interesting film than the 'cinema of discomfort' label allows.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#6 Post by mfunk9786 » Fri Mar 02, 2012 5:43 pm

I didn't take the ending as suspenseful, as I don't know if it's possible for
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Wolfgang to have died in the meantime,
but rather a deliberate choice not to share with viewers the aftermath of these events similar to how great measures have been taken to shield Elizabeth Fritzl from the press since she escaped. I found it rather hopeful, frankly - if Schleinzer really wanted to fuck with us, he would have let much more time pass before the epilogue or
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left Wolfgang in some sort of medical peril the last time we see him, a la Dogtooth

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#7 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Jun 02, 2012 10:13 am

Spoilers:
warren oates wrote:
puxzkkx wrote:I thought this was in kind of bad taste. First 10 minutes seem to be setting up a de(re?)construction of this 'monster' character type, more intent on dehumanising it further than humanising it, an interesting angle. But after a while it just settles into the same rut of dry compositions and 'cinema of discomfort' clichés. And the finale is simply cruel, an offhand dip into 'suspense' that is at odds with the rest of the film and a really sour note to end on. He's obviously learned from some of the best but I don't think Schleinzer is there yet.
Well, this is hearsay, but on the IMDb boards for this film someone who saw it in Berlin said they were at a Q&A where the director was asked about the ending and said he choose to end the film the way he did because it was precisely the moment in time when the character Michael ceased to exert control over the situation. For the study of a character who could only understand life as a means to power/control, this is hardly a thoughtlessly cruel ending.
I've watched the film now and would share puxzkkx's concerns about the ending, less for the exact moment of the ending (which warren oates describes well and it was always inevitable that this would be the moment that the film would end on, of the private becoming public) but the rather dumb (even sadistic to the audience, if I'm being uncharitable) drawing out of the mother futzing around in the basement and going back upstairs before coming down again, as if seeing a deadlocked steel door in someone's basement would not naturally immediately draw someone's interest over and above all of the canned goods on the nearby shelves!

While I'm nitpicking a little, as much as I really like the Haneke-style disconnected shots from locked-down camera positions, which I think work beautifully in slowly revealing the geography of the limited house location over time, I think that final sequence of the relatives tidying up the house would really have benefitted from moving away from that locked down, hard edits between shots style. Maybe one long unbroken shot, or at least longer fluid shots would not only have increased the suspense of that final scene (the advantage, and disadvantage, of hard edits is that they allow for disorienting jumps in time or narrative elisions, whereas what you really need in that final suspenseful scene is a sense of unbroken continuity, similar to that in the opening and closing sequence of Code Unknown), but would also have given the sense that we were seeing the location anew from the perspective of outside characters.

The style works perfectly for Michael's character throughout most of the film but to continue that into the post-death house clean up scene, even if it is late in the film for a shift in style, suggests a lack of interest in the characters of the rest of the family except as facilitators for that final revelation. I suppose though, to fit with warren oates' comment, it could be argued that until the barred door is opened, Michael still has control over the mise-en-scene and therefore the structure of the film, so I don't think this aspect totally ruins the film, but I wonder if it could have departed from the template a little there.

But other than those concerns with the final moments, I thought the film was excellent. It is definitely about power and control but I was interested that Michael, despite being a monster, in some ways becomes the most pitiable figure of the film. He seems totally enslaved by his desires (as shown by not getting excited when trying to make out with the waitress at the ski resort) rather than the master of them. The procedural aspect to the film noted above just emphasised that - all of the wandering around shops buying furniture and food - and made me think how much hard work it would be in order to keep someone prisoner like that!

Perhaps that need to always keep the boy locked in the basement in mind shows how much of a prisoner Michael is as well. Of course the boy is always the even more literal prisoner in the tiny room, but Michael's own house is a secondary barrier, only emphasised when he locks it down in order to let the boy out of the room so that they can have parodies of family meals, TV time or Christmas present swapping sessions together (is Michael giving the fifth Harry Potter book to both his nephew and his captive boy a suggestion that he equates them both? That he might, or has, targeted his nephew? Or does it just suggest that Michael does not have much imagination when it comes to buying gifts for specific people!) I also think that, as well as the audience perversely worrying that Michael will be caught when one of his co-workers who has relatives across the street just wanders into his house for a chat, that we are meant to side with him in his indignation at her casual and unthinking violation of his private space! (Was Funny Games an influence? That Michael in bodily throwing the woman out of the garage door is showing what the family in that film should have done at the very beginning?!)

Getting back to the issue of power and control, I like the sense of Michael wanting to keep things on an even footing throughout to create a kind of strange sense of faux-normality to his life, keeping a calm, distant demeanour, setting the table, washing the dishes and ironing, etc. He's kind of attempting to do a Jeanne Dielman (especially in that section before the main title, which cycles through Michael's daily chores just with child abuse instead of prostitution as the 'behind closed doors' act). Yet there are those times when he loses his cool, such as the rush to turn the power off to the boy's room when a report on child abductions comes onto the television (which in its set up with the unseen television blaring and the main character ironing reminded me of Binoche's character's scene of overhearing an argument going on in the next apartment in Code Unknown), and of course most horribly he himself has already regularly violated this 'normalcy' by kidnapping and raping a child, suggesting that this facade can be dropped at his whims, or compulsive urges.

Yet Michael is still expecting others to play their role that he has assigned to them. One of the most fascinating and disturbing things in the film is the way that the boy begins as extremely passive, the literally abused partner in a dysfunctional relationship. In the first section of the film the most self-directed thing that the boy does is to become so sick that he forces Michael to take a day off work in order to pre-emptively dig a shallow grave! Yet from this scene on the boy steadily becomes more and more embolded, until the final confrontation.

I particularly liked the moment of the boy stealing the bauble from the Christmas tree to play with, then destroying it before Michael can take it from him. It seems to be suggesting that even in these limited circumstances that the boy needs some secrets, some privacy and some private objects that he can own, while his abuser is dominating him totally and only allowing him the objects or affection that he deigns to provide at a particular moment in time. In a disturbing way though, the boy's small act with the bauble could also be seen as equating his need for privacy and control with that of his abuser. The early section of the film is particularly disturbing for the way that the boy does seem to be participating in the facade of normalcy, particularly in the 'day trip' section, and even that passive participation is in some horrible ways validating Michael's actions and putting them into context of a normal lifestyle. Is the boy learning from and copying the actions of his abuser, or is he able to exist outside of the control of his abuser?

Does the boy become more assertive just because he is annoyed at Michael continually leaving him? Or is the boy after a period of confusion beginning to reassert himself? Does the film intend for the audience just to see the boy as passive until they get to know him? Or are we meant to be seeing the boy through Michael's eyes, getting slowly disillousioned with his new possession's willfulness and steadily more aggressive responses to his advances?

After all, the illness causes Michael to have the car accident that landed him in hospital so perhaps the boy had been left alone for a few days? Would Michael have twisted that absence in some way to suggest that he was punishing the boy for being ill by leaving him alone 'in solitary' for a while? (I also wonder whether Michael in a passive aggressive way deliberately got knocked down by the car in order to have some time away from his prisoner. As he does by going to the ski resort. Does that therefore suggest that Michael's final, fatal car crash was just an attempt to get some further recuperation time in hospital and punish the boy for scalding him but he ended up going to far and killing himself?)

While the subject matter of the film is grim, I did want to put in a word for the very dark streak of humour running through it, which I found very amusing at times! If you don't buy the idea of Michael deliberatly having accidents that I suggest above, perhaps his regular knocks and falls could be seen as the film having a blackly comic sense of karma about it - that Michael ends up knocked down by a speeding car or trapped in a snow drift in the dusk because of his hideous actions back at home drawing the bad luck to him! (In filmic terms it is also to set up that "what will happen to the boy if Michael dies?" sense hanging over the film which we see played out eventually, so in that sense I think that the director's comments that the kid is obviously meant to be alive at the end is a little disingenuous - they are definitely raising the issue of the boy being abandoned locked in a room and of what could happen to him with all of these hospital stays and skiing trips)

I also liked that abrupt cut (one of the best uses of the hard editing style in the film) from Michael assuring his friends that he can ski the powdery snow trail to him face down in a snow drift!

And the most explicit scene is also one of the funniest, where Michael, in emulation of a crass line of dialogue from a horror film (implictly raising that whole, somewhat tired, debate about violence in the media), decides to repeat it at the meal table in order to show his dominance, only to be immediately met by a hilariously blunt and withering reponse from the boy!

I also thought the ending undercutting Michael at every turn was very funny! Michael is flying his highest after getting his promotion, thereby proving the boy wrong when he needles him about being the "1 in 4" who'll lose their job during the economic crisis! Yet at the party to celebrate his promotion I think it is very telling that Michael is obviously very uncomfortable, constantly topping peoples glasses up and handing out the food. More of a waiter than the man of the hour, and I think this plays into his need to always be doing some task or other during the rest of the film. Then he returns home to have a quiet evening in and on unlocking the door to the room immediately gets a kettle of boiling water thrown into his face! (This sort of gets foreshadowed early on in the film where the boy is making one of those 'just add water' meals with a cheap electric kettle compared with the one in Michael's kitchen upstairs being a posh, whistling one! I also suppose that if they remade this film in Britain there would be an excellent opportunity for Pot Noodle to do a product placement tie in!)

The scene of Michael in the bath trying to put cold water on his face, then kicking out in impotent rage against the sides of the tub reminded me a lot of the earlier scene where he is stuck in the snow drift and thrashes a nearby sapling with his ski pole, again in an expession of impotent rage! This also I think plays into Michael being punished for trying to stick to a non-extreme sense of keeping up appearances, instead getting assaulted on both sides from one extreme of temperature or the other!

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#8 Post by zedz » Mon Jun 04, 2012 5:13 pm

Colin's post reminded me that one of the things I appreciated most about this film: that Michael's victim avoids the "horror movie dumb" cliche. Even though the boy is in a position of almost paralyzing powerlessness, he nevertheless cannily exploits every scintilla of opportunity that presents itself and never yields in his inner resistance. Schleinzer manages to create intelligent suspense set pieces that dangle the possibility of escape without making the victim seem foolish for failing to achieve it.

(This was also by far the best thing about Funny Games, in my opinion, though I'm not sure Haneke realized that. Other than that, I don't actually see much stylistic or thematic overlap between the two films.)

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#9 Post by warren oates » Mon Jun 04, 2012 11:10 pm

Nicely said, zedz. And more solid evidence that Michael is the furthest thing from prurient exploitation or shock cinema. I liked most of colin's post too, though I'd take issue with any implication that the film wants us to sympathize or even empathize with Michael. For me that's the most interesting aspect of a film about a protagonist who is so abhorrent. There's no attempt to make him relatable or digestible with tricks of narrative or pop psychology. Colin, you were really worrying that Michael might get caught rather than praying for every unfolding moment of the film that he definitely would be? Just goes to show, I suppose, how merely being the protagonist of a film can create some vestige of identification, even with the most extreme kind of antihero, the sort of stone cold psychopath who has zero empathy for any other human.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#10 Post by colinr0380 » Tue Jun 05, 2012 5:59 am

I would say feel pity for rather than sympathise or empathise with Michael - a pity that doesn't excuse his actions though. He's a slave to his libido (taking this into similar territory to Shame). He is a monster who is trying to play at being normal, and his few moments of happiness in the film come when everything in his life seems to be going well and fitting into the right compartments, and he can perhaps think to himself that his lifestyle is just like anyone else's. Yet that facade is a total sham, and the pity comes from wondering how much of a sham he realises his life is - this deceptively mundane shell covering a core of total corruption, like the heavily fortified room within the sealed up house - and whether that awareness weighs on him or not.

Is the sham facade some consolation Michael has for being a slave to compulsive acts? Relationships with women are impossible, not just because they would find the kid in the basement but also because he literally seems to be impotent with them. Relationships with family seem frosty at best - at first I wondered whether it was because he needed to keep close to the boy, but then he goes off for the mid-film skiing trip, so spending Christmas with the family is obviously not high on his list of priorities (or is Michael just trying to keep away from his nephew, so is avoiding them?) After all, he could have spent Christmas with his family and then put on an 'extra Christmas' with the boy later if he really wanted to.

Whereas the boy, despite some of his comments and his escape attempt, feels very blank and we find out barely anything about him and his background from first to last, perhaps mirroring Michael's own lack of interest in the world he has abducted the boy from, keeping him as a blankly idealised child/doll figure to play with and discard. We don't even know whether he was abducted recently or had been there for a while. That makes me think that the child abuse in the film is another way of fitting the boy into Michael's routines, giving Michael a sense of a relationship (meals, sex, TV time, even something as mundane as a snowball fight) without him actually having to think of the other person, just use them for his whims and then lock them away. Yet the irony is that this captive relationship actually seems to take up more of Michael's time than another one would!

Death feels inevitable from the very beginning for Michael for his transgressive acts, but even that inevitability inspires a certain form of pity. Although I think that this aspect is also playing into worrying for what will happen to the boy when he does die, even before he does.

Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of putting the most transgressive acts of child abuse off screen for the most part, since that ends up removing that utter break from the character that the audience would otherwise experience and which led me to see the film as riffing a little off of Jeanne Dielman in the sense that we have to infer the motives from an unseen extreme act from the rest of the film (there's even a similar construction in having the most extreme example of their actions during the cycle of events introducing us to the character, followed by the explicit shot of the main character washing themselves afterwards). Yet that would have made the film almost impossible to watch, not to mention distribute, and I think most of the horror is still effectively conveyed in those situations leading up or cooling down from the abuse (that scene with Michael doing come hither looks, and actions, on the child's bed is perhaps the most disturbing moment in the whole film).

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#11 Post by david hare » Tue Jun 05, 2012 6:43 am

Yes, well, are you saying this is less worrying to people with very bad reactions to this material, than, say, Tras al Cristal?

I dont want to break your form which is superb, but I really think this is unbearable stuff to watch, and Cristal is somehow (absurdly really) just, only just more bearable to watch because it it gets out of control towards the end formally. I think they are both junk, essentially and I wish I had never seen them.

Why?

But then you go and read about monsters like the Canadian-Gay-Boy-Pornstar-Surgery_gorgeousness=total gay- love object-narcissist who has been posting bits of his cannibal lerv subjects to various Canadian MPs (and I think also the Murdoch media...)

Where else do we really need to go.. This is so delivering into Serbian Film terroire. And total abyss I think I wanna be dead... Etc./

Please.

Sorry Colin, waste your tme on something that deserves it.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#12 Post by colinr0380 » Tue Jun 05, 2012 9:01 am

No problem david hare, I can understand those reactions. If we are comparing to Trans el Cristal/In A Glass Cage, I think that film is much, much more disturbing if just for the harrowing onscreen murder sequence. Yet that film is also much more situated within the gothic horror/slasher genre, especially in the scenes with the sister. So it is swings and roundabouts really.

In fact the more I think of the film, I think I might withdraw slightly from describing it as excellent as above. Not that films have to be topical but I think anyone looking for a more topical Natascha Kampusch style enquiry into the mind of someone who keeps someone locked away for a long period, or the psychology of someone held prisoner (or a Josef Fritzl enquiry into how someone terrorises and imprisons their family, which is something that other recent films, such as The Woman, seem to allude to) is going to find the film a little wanting in places, as I don't think that was really something that the filmmakers were attempting to deal with (especially anything to do with family relationships and potential shared culpability given that Michael's family are, damningly, detached from his actions throughout).

The director in the interview on the disc talks of coming from a generation before children were taught not to go off with strangers and in some ways that previous generational naivete shows - it is sort of a film made by and for an earlier generation who did not have those same kind of warnings told to them constantly whilst growing up. So whilst I think the character study portions of the film are very well done, I'm not entirely sure that I buy the set up of the situation and it is perhaps telling that nothing of the boy's back story or details of his abduction get revealed at all in the course of events - he's just there in the room from the start with no indication as to how or for how long (there's the box of letters that Michael keeps hidden away but is that just from the one child or from previous ones as well?). That worryingly is also something which makes that first section the most upsetting part of the film as it turns the character at first into even more of an passive object purely being defined by his relationship to his abuser.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#13 Post by david hare » Tue Jun 05, 2012 7:53 pm

Sorry too. It's not really my business to tell people what's fit.

But this is where I feel old. Child rape and child rape/murder being used as the template for conventional gothic drama, or suspense tropes just seems to me completely beyond what is in any way acceptable. I am obviously too old or something. Maybe it's just my last job where a case I was handling (at the most mundane admin level) slipped through the cracks and before it was fianlly transfeered to the court for return to the maternal indigenous grandparent the little boy was found murdered and cut up into pieces packed into a suitcase and floated down the Parramatta river. Somebody (not me) missed the "urgent" sticker on the case file. If you've seen hardocre child porn photos I don't think you will ever forget them. There's nothing about this area of sickness that I can deal with other than emotionally.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#14 Post by warren oates » Tue Jun 05, 2012 8:45 pm

I know vets who can't watch war movies so that makes perfect sense.

But this is what I like so much about the film Michael. Difficult as it was to watch. It's taking subject matter that should by all rights be in poor taste at best and shamelessly exploitative at worst and making utterly necessary cinema out of it not through any kind of narrative hyperbole or generic subterfuge (the way Hollywood does with killers in films as different as Psycho, The Silence of The Lambs and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) but by staring the mundane truth of it unflinchingly in the face. I'm still not completely on board with Colin. Sure it's a lot of work for Michael to live the secret life of evil that he's got going, but it's only superficially comparable to Jeanne Dielman's plight, only in procedural terms. And I'd argue that Michael isn't a prisoner of his desire. That's what he would be if he simply wanted to rape kids all day but struggled not to act on that urge. And unlike Shame's Brandon, Michael isn't trying to deny his deep yet conflicted emotions for other people by acting out sexually. I think he really doesn't have any normal human emotions to begin with, which is how he can even allow himself to do what he does to that child in the first place. There may be some child sex predators out there who are not 100% dyed-in-the-wool, hiding behind a mask of sanity, power/control obsessed psychopaths. But Michael is not one of them.

If anything, the absence of pat psychological explanations for Michael's development is more true to life and more disturbing for it. Yes it's true that many abusers were abused as children, but some of them weren't. Same goes for certain really high profile serial killers. To think that we can explain away or even begin to "understand", say, the Miami face eater or Jeffery Dahmer if we simply saw more of their backstory is one of the fallacies of the sort of folk wisdom brand of abnormal psychology that passes for depth in most narrative films.

Just got my AE Blu-ray in the mail today, so I'll have to see it again, but I remember there being clues within the context of the film's fragments about how long the boy has been there. References around the holidays and in at least one other place that imply it's been something like 2-3 years.

As for how he kidnapped the boy in the first place, look no further than the film's most harrowing scene and its finest (and perhaps most Haneke-esque) long take
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at the go-cart racetrack, walking away with someone else's child.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#15 Post by colinr0380 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 12:41 pm

And I apologise too david hare - I'm extremely lucky to never have had to face this kind of world in real life, and hope never to do so. The depiction of the same through fiction is about as close as I would ever want to come, though I think my relatively privileged distance from this kind of subject can sometimes make me a little insensitive when discussing the content of films purely from the point of view of how I reacted to the drama and how it works as viewing experience, rather than from the perspective of discussing whether such sensitive subject matter should be handled at all.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#16 Post by swo17 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 1:55 pm

For what it's worth, I thought the film was, for the most part, remarkably restrained in terms of what it actually depicted on screen. It instead relied on the tools of the cinematic form (editing, ellipses, clever storytelling, subtle facial expressions, etc.) to allow the viewer to piece together the horrors that are better left unfilmed. (Off the top of my head, I can only recall one scene where I might have felt uncomfortable having my own child act in the film.) Perhaps this "less is more" approach was simply a product of this film's subject being one of the few topics that is still (thankfully) taboo to depict (if not address) in a film, but I found it to be very refreshing in this age when many horror films seem more concerned with shocking than with telling a good story or telling it well.

I can relate to david hare though--there are certain films that, for very personal reasons, I can hardly stand to watch and I would never dream of defending them, even though I can see how they are objectively good films and why others champion them. I think though that the debate about whether certain subjects should be addressed in films is largely a moot one--we can wring our hands about it all we want on the internet, and we may in some cases be entirely right, but people are still going to make these films, and these things are still going to keep happening in the world. (This film is, after all, inspired by true events, yes?) And let's be honest--there are thousands of acts or scenarios that we have seen depicted in films (perhaps without even batting an eye) that we would never wish to witness in person. So I suppose the questions we are left with are: 1) Does this film tackle its sensitive subject matter responsibly or exploitatively? and 2) Does this film merely shove the ugliness of the world in my face and dare me to smell it, or does it inspire me to reflect on issues facing the world around me, either those directly addressed in the film, or perhaps analogous, if less sensational ones?

On this last point (and I would like to make it clear that I do not in any way mean to diminish the seriousness of child abuse), I think a parallel can be drawn between Michael's keeping of a child locked in his basement to be available to him at his whim and modern consumerist tendencies toward instant gratification and compartmentalized have-everythingism. After all, is it not somewhat absurd (if less horrific) that both I and my (hypothetical) neighbor have in our basements home movie theaters and hundreds of the same DVDs? (Incidentally, the playing up of this absurdity is one of my favorite elements of the construction of von Trier's Dogville. Playtime of course addresses this as well.)

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#17 Post by warren oates » Wed Jun 06, 2012 3:13 pm

Of course the difference, swo, is that your DVDs don't have an individual human existence that being in your basement is degrading and depriving them of. (You could have made the same point about personal libraries of books, too.) That's what I don't get about the response to this film so far, even from its supporters. Most of the good reviews here at some point still want to tiptoe around the intent of the film, as if riffing off its secondary themes and ideas (which I'm not denying the existence of) somehow makes it into a more respectable achievement. Yet this film isn't about consumerism. Most consumers I know may be deadened somewhat by their stuff, but that doesn't mean they'd ever begin to treat someone else like an object, the way Michael does. The film at its core is a procedural portrait of the most chilling dangerous and realistic kind of psychopathic predator -- not a charismatic cartoon monster, but the little grey man of callous manipulators -- the one who lives next door and looks and acts like any other unremarkable joe. For me the film is justified by being one of the few examinations of this kind of evil that doesn't try to falsify anything, either to make it more palatable or more exciting for the audience. And on this count, Michael succeeds on a level at least equal to the best works of its biggest influence Michael Haneke.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#18 Post by swo17 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 4:41 pm

Obviously the film is not primarily about the point that I made. If I were writing a more comprehensive review of the film, or if the film's primary intent had not already been brought up, I might have focused on that more in my post. But discussing secondary themes can be fun! I'll grant that no analogy comes to mind related to the captive boy that does justice to his plight as a human being in the situation presented in the film. But given that the film's protagonist treats him like an object, and that, by virtue of him being the film's protagonist, we are put in a position to try to identify with him in some respect, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest that the film at least partly would like us to ponder this: Here is a man who has, from his own perspective, about all he could ask for--independence, a respectable position at his job, and a refuge at home in which he can sate his basest desires whenever the mood should strike. But is he fulfilled? While he has constructed a life for himself in which he is free to do a few things that he has decided he wants to do, I think the procedural element of the film demonstrates quite effectively how he has become enslaved by his choices.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#19 Post by warren oates » Wed Jun 06, 2012 5:12 pm

Well, swo, you're right that it's boring to make the same point over and over. By all means discuss secondary themes. But I guess I'm trying to argue that the seriousness, single-mindedness and undigestability of the work and inscrutability of the protagonist make this kind of analysis more difficult than it would be with most other films.

All of this talk about consumerism would make more sense in the context of a film like, say, Benny's Video, where the film itself definitely raises the connections you're broaching here between the availability/consumability of violent and sexual images and the callousness it takes to commit cold-blooded murder. Even so, Benny still has some kind of conscience, even if he is morally retarded and a potential burgeoning sociopath, as he still does the only right thing left doing in the end. The one scene where we see Michael watching anything like this has more to do with setting up a later moment of resistance on the part of the boy. And it's more on the order of all the non-reason "reasons" we get a glimpse of in Gus Van Sant's Elephant (teasing, violent video games, Hitler).

For me, the film's portrait of Michael is of a man well beyond acting out of a need for something conventionally and relatably human like "fulfillment." And my problem with colin's otherwise incisive post is that I'm still not sure the film does invite us to identify with Michael, which is another part of what makes the work so bold. There's a recent NYT feature about child psychopaths -- where they come from (surprise, often from otherwise totally normal loving families with other ordinary children) -- that speaks to what I keep harping on. There's a limit to what even modern neuroscience can tell us about how the mind of a person who treats all other people like objects works and how the rest of us can even begin to conceive of this fact, let alone understand it.

I suppose that the connection to something like Elephant and the procedural/documentary aspects of both films for me is about how, when it comes to a select few horrible acts, there's more truth in the "what" than any available "why."

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#20 Post by colinr0380 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 5:56 pm

I should make it clear that I only really feel as if we 'side' with Michael in that scene where he bodily throws the co-worker out of the house, and that is mainly due to my amusement at the woman unthinkingly blundering in there, which itself is an unthinking violation of a social convention of privacy. Albeit not as extreme as the material elsewhere in the film, but I think we are meant to feel that sense of utter shock at seeing her standing there segueing into a sense of outrage at her presence, and the irony of Michael reacting badly to that when he is doing the same thing on a much more routine basis, and in far more horrific ways, by entering his captive's room whenever and to do whatever he wishes.

In the rest of the film I felt that more detached ironically amusing sense of doom hanging over Michael. He inevitably has to die for his transgressions but the question is when and by what means.

I think what swo was talking about, which I agree with, is not so much the 'lifestyle consumerism' aspect, but that Michael seems to be rather caught up in the creation of 'normalcy' and seems to be working towards losing himself in the fantasy that this situation is a normal, routine one. But the brief, disturbing, moments where everything 'looks' normal are constantly undermined by his actions and in the way that he interacts with people, particularly the boy. He wants to relate to the boy as a boy (such as in the day trip walk and the childish snowball fight), then he wants to relate to him as a partner in a relationship (having a meal, washing the dishes), then he wants to relate sexually, then he wants to ignore the boy altogether and go off and live his life, get a promotion at work and go on a trip (after stocking up on food as one might for an animal you would leave at home while you went on holiday). And Michael is expecting everything to shift with him and keep up with his changing whims without complaint (the picking up and dropping of things that may work with piles of DVDs and even with the use of pornography to satisfy sexual urges, but breaks down horrifically when real people are involved and unthinkingly exploited, children or other adults), and that I think plays into what swo was saying.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#21 Post by swo17 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 6:24 pm

colinr0380 wrote:Michael seems to be rather caught up in the creation of 'normalcy' and seems to be working towards losing himself in the fantasy that this situation is a normal, routine one. But the brief, disturbing, moments where everything 'looks' normal are constantly undermined by his actions and in the way that he interacts with people, particularly the boy. He wants to relate to the boy as a boy (such as in the day trip walk and the childish snowball fight), then he wants to relate to him as a partner in a relationship (having a meal, washing the dishes), then he wants to relate sexually, then he wants to ignore the boy altogether and go off and live his life, get a promotion at work and go on a trip (after stocking up on food as one might for an animal you would leave at home while you went on holiday). And Michael is expecting everything to shift and keep up with his whims without complaint, and that I think plays into what swo was saying.
Yes, very well put (better than I put it).
warren oates wrote:For me, the film's portrait of Michael is of a man well beyond acting out of a need for something conventionally and relatably human like "fulfillment." And my problem with colin's otherwise incisive post is that I'm still not sure the film does invite us to identify with Michael, which is another part of what makes the work so bold. There's a recent NYT feature about child psychopaths -- where they come from (surprise, often from otherwise totally normal loving families with other ordinary children) -- that speaks to what I keep harping on. There's a limit to what even modern neuroscience can tell us about how the mind of a person who treats all other people like objects works and how the rest of us can even begin to conceive of this fact, let alone understand it.
I guess I don't subscribe to the whole "us vs. them" mentality, i.e. that Michael is a monster who has nothing in common with the rest of us normal human beings, and therefore cannot be learned from. What he does is certainly monstrous, and I don't know why he feels compelled to do it (perhaps it is at least partly chemical), but lots of us do things we know are wrong because we don't care that they're wrong, because we're selfish, or because we've kept up an act for so long that it's evolved into its own motivating force.

Notice how Michael behaves inside vs. outside his house. He knows precisely how to behave around others so as not to let anything on, for example, while at work, or even when attempting to pick up another kid at the racetrack. He's not just some helpless, drooling predator. He knows what is considered acceptable behavior and adopts this behavior in public (insofar as one can while attempting to abduct a child from a crowded public venue), even if he doesn't personally care about upholding a certain boundary that society has put in place, because it's a boundary that he wants to be able to cross when he feels like it. And when he does so, I would presume it's in order to fulfill some deep-rooted desire (as opposed to just, say, passing the time), even if this is not what most of us would call fulfillment. I'd be lying if I said I didn't do something similar myself sometimes, in at least some small degree. I think a lot of people would.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#22 Post by warren oates » Wed Jun 06, 2012 7:22 pm

Colin, I like what you're saying about Michael's fabrication of normalcy, with the caveat that it's all very one-sided and self-serving for Michael. The snowball fight, for instance, isn't so much childish as cruel. It's an ambush. A disturbed adult's malformed parody of a childhood moment.

I should add that I had the opposite reaction to his work friend's unannounced visit. I wasn't worried for Michael or indignant. But stunned that she'd blundered into his lair and worried he might have to murder her.
swo17 wrote:I guess I don't subscribe to the whole "us vs. them" mentality, i.e. that Michael is a monster who has nothing in common with the rest of us normal human beings, and therefore cannot be learned from. What he does is certainly monstrous, and I don't know why he feels compelled to do it (perhaps it is at least partly chemical), but lots of us do things we know are wrong because we don't care that they're wrong, because we're selfish, or because we've kept up an act for so long that it's evolved into its own motivating force.

Notice how Michael behaves inside vs. outside his house. He knows precisely how to behave around others so as not to let anything on, for example, while at work, or even when attempting to pick up another kid at the racetrack. He's not just some helpless, drooling predator. He knows what is considered acceptable behavior and adopts this behavior in public (insofar as one can while attempting to abduct a child from a crowded public venue), even if he doesn't personally care about upholding a certain boundary that society has put in place, because it's a boundary that he wants to be able to cross when he feels like it. And when he does so, I would presume it's in order to fulfill some deep-rooted desire (as opposed to just, say, passing the time), even if this is not what most of us would call fulfillment. I'd be lying if I said I didn't do something similar myself sometimes, in at least some small degree. I think a lot of people would.
Swo, it's not about "us" vs. "them" for me either. But about the reality of what Michael does and the way any reasons for it ring so hollow. What you've written above about Michael expertly adopting publicly accepted behavior to perfectly mask his private crimes is a textbook definition of psychopathy. The ability and will to mimic normal human emotion in order to unfeelingly manipulate people into doing what you want. If I don't hesitate to call Michael evil it's because I've spent a good deal of time studying criminal psychopathy and haven't yet discovered a better way to describe these acts. If you want to relate what Michael does to your participating in mildly deceptive social conventions (like, say, your polite "I'm fine" when someone asks you "How's it going?" even if this isn't true so to go along-get along), I'd say that it's not just a matter of degree here. The facade, the lies of a character like Michael are of a different order and nature.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#23 Post by gcgiles1dollarbin » Wed Jun 06, 2012 10:19 pm

swo17 wrote:Notice how Michael behaves inside vs. outside his house. He knows precisely how to behave around others so as not to let anything on, for example, while at work, or even when attempting to pick up another kid at the racetrack. He's not just some helpless, drooling predator. He knows what is considered acceptable behavior and adopts this behavior in public (insofar as one can while attempting to abduct a child from a crowded public venue), even if he doesn't personally care about upholding a certain boundary that society has put in place, because it's a boundary that he wants to be able to cross when he feels like it. And when he does so, I would presume it's in order to fulfill some deep-rooted desire (as opposed to just, say, passing the time), even if this is not what most of us would call fulfillment. I'd be lying if I said I didn't do something similar myself sometimes, in at least some small degree. I think a lot of people would.
I think it is essential to understand the points and attributes we share with someone deeply disturbed in order to effect change and rehabilitation, so I agree with swo17 that it's not inappropriate--that it is in fact crucial--to look at Michael as he interacts with coworkers and family and say to oneself, "I find myself doing the same thing," even though all of Michael's decisions are geared toward facilitating a monstrous deceit. And this even goes so far as recognizing oddly normative behavior around Wolfgang, as colinr0380 points out earlier. I would dislike this film intensely if it took the We Need to Talk About Kevin tack, in which an equally disturbed individual is made out to be something totally remote from you or me, something monstrous, impenetrable, or cartoonishly sinister. I think it is far worse and potentially more harmful to fence ourselves from an atrocity by never daring to imagine the ways in which an individual like this one can function inconspicuously in a world we all share. I don't mind being implicated in this regard; I think we all have a lot to learn when it comes to understanding this kind of terrible sickness. I think it's this complicity that helps us avoid more exploitative, Gothic, or generically suspenseful versions of a story like this one--what david hare understandably deplores.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#24 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed Jun 06, 2012 11:00 pm

swo17 wrote:Notice how Michael behaves inside vs. outside his house. He knows precisely how to behave around others so as not to let anything on, for example, while at work, or even when attempting to pick up another kid at the racetrack. He's not just some helpless, drooling predator. He knows what is considered acceptable behavior and adopts this behavior in public (insofar as one can while attempting to abduct a child from a crowded public venue), even if he doesn't personally care about upholding a certain boundary that society has put in place, because it's a boundary that he wants to be able to cross when he feels like it. And when he does so, I would presume it's in order to fulfill some deep-rooted desire (as opposed to just, say, passing the time), even if this is not what most of us would call fulfillment. I'd be lying if I said I didn't do something similar myself sometimes, in at least some small degree. I think a lot of people would.
It seems like you're reading Michael as an allegory for certain ethical problems faced by individuals. I don't know that that's coherent. Part of it is the way you've intellectualized it. You say that Michael observes social boundaries so that he may fit in but then breaks them when he feels like it; you and other people do the same thing, therefore it's a comment on our general disposition to ignore social mores when we feel like it and the consequences of that. But that's a reductionism. It treats all boundary crossing as equivalent, which pragmatically and morally isn't true, and it elides the actual problem: what's really wrong is not the fact that Michael is breaking a rule or going against a social taboo, it's that he takes pleasure in the suffering of another human being. It's hard to see that as an indictment of people violating social norms for their own convenience because that's not really the problem, and it doesn't contribute to the creation of people like Michael.

A lot of Michael's psychology, as colin notes, is his desire to inhabit 'normal' social roles, such as when he acts out domestic banalities with the kid. Michael clearly is trying to try on the regular social roles he sees around him, but obviously has no idea of how to actually do this. He doesn't really understand human interaction even if he can go through the motions. Michael's problem isn't that he violates social norms, it's that he's alienated from them, he hasn't internalized them, they remain behaviours without intrinsic value, to be enacted so as to survive. He doesn't understand socials norms on anything other than an intellectual, analytic level. They are entirely performative for him. Michael is just unable, at a basic level, to feel human sympathy, to understand another person's feelings as anything other than a collection empty signifiers.

I'm not convinced that Michael tells us anything about ourselves. I see instead someone who just can't connect the way the rest of us do, and on some level feels that he ought to be able to. Everyone's felt alienated at some point in their lives, but this is alienation and anti-social behaviour on a scale well, well beyond what the majority of people can even conceive of.

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Re: Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

#25 Post by warren oates » Wed Jun 06, 2012 11:09 pm

I agree with Sausage. Nicely said.

Most of what gcgiles1dollarbin writes would be true if Michael weren't a psychopath. The realism isn't in the anti-Gothicity. It's in the clinical accuracy of the psychology. Michael isn't disturbed in the sense that his sanity is compromised (and I did misspeak slightly about this above). In the legal sense, he's perfectly sane. He knows exactly what he's doing. He knows it's terribly wrong. He even knows intellectually what his victim is feeling as a result. He simply doesn't give a shit.

What I'm trying to say is that, in the most crucial way, you don't share any meaningful "points and attributes" with someone like Michael (unlike a guy who robs a bank for money, a jealous lover who kills his s.o., etc. etc.).

This isn't some death camp guard, an ordinary German, who was facilitating evil by just following orders. Or even a more conflicted child molester who's personally tortured by the acts his urges have lead him to. Or any other garden variety criminal.

I agree with experts like Philip Zimbardo that most of the bad things most people do are more socially constructed than we'd like to believe. Except, that is, for the choices of bonafide psychopaths.

I think some of you imagine you've got the moral high ground, but instead in this case you're probably just badly misunderstanding the vast and dangerous difference between conventionally bad people and humans born without an empathy center in the brain.

Part of the reason this all matters so much is because of the nature of narrative. One of the basic reasons humans delight in stories is to empathize with the protagonist. We actually learn vicariously by seeing what the hero goes through, imagining ourselves in his/her place and trying to predict -- based on our lifetime of first and secondhand experience interacting with all kinds of other humans -- what he/she will do next. Well, Michael certainly challenges this dynamic more than most narrative films could. Not only does the protagonist do hideous things, but he does them remorselessly and with a kind of coldness that's stunning even to someone like me who makes a sometime hobby of reading about people like this. Just a few examples
SpoilerShow
the mechanical way Michael digs the shallow grave, so soon after the boy is taken ill -- a sick kidnapped boy is a problem to be solved, one way or the other... Or the decision to cure the boy's loneliness by kidnapping another boy, as if he's getting another dog or cat to befriend his lonely house pet.
Some of the cutting edge work that's going on in the study of psychopathy finds surprising and revealing connections to autism. In both conditions, there's an empathy problem, a difficulty in accessing the feelings of other people. While an autistic person is capable of emotions like empathy, he/she generally lacks a workable theory of the other's emotional mind, can't read facial expressions and correlate them with the proper emotions. A psychopath on the other hand has an acute grasp of how other peoples' emotions work but none of the corresponding feelings inside themselves, no ability to emotionally take the place of the other and zero interest in ever doing so.

More than law and order or government or some kind of imagined social contract we've collectively made to keep chaos at bay, empathy may be the very foundation of civilized society. And we'd all be remiss to pretend that those few of us who operate outside of its constraints (hiding all the while in plain sight) are not radically different.

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