Having made his name working as casting director on the films of Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, Stefan Ruzowitzky and Benjamin Heisenberg, Markus Schleinzer has now turned his hand to directing with Michael, one of the most uncompromising and unsettling debuts you’re likely to see all year.

Tackling what the director describes as one of society’s greatest crimes as its subject, Schleinzer has undoubtedly taken bold steps with his initial foray into feature film directing. Although his film repeatedly avoids graphic portrayals of the horrific acts at the heart of his self-penned story, as is often the case, what is left to the imagination is more disturbing than any onscreen image could ever be. The implications of an early scene at a sink are particularly uncomfortable to process and serve as a precursor for what is to unfold over the next 96 minutes.

Instead of overreliance on shock value, which would have been all too easy an approach for Schleinzer, the director opts to primarily focus on the banal, everyday occurrences in the life of his perpetrator – in a way humanizing the monster he has created. There are occasional flashes where we witness the true unstable nature of Michael (Michael Fuith), however it’s this normality which proves to be the most disturbing aspect of his character. During Schleinzer’s story we witness Michael receive a promotion, exchange Christmas presents with family and even attempt to screw the local landlady on a skiing trip. All of which appear as the acts of a ‘normal’ member of society, but what does this say about ‘normality’?

Michael: Markus SchleinzerThe perpetrator doesn’t try to do anything but live according to a cliché picture of normality. He tries to be like everybody else. He makes a big effort to adhere to the rites of normality because that is what conceals his crime.

I am interested in these self-created idylls, which are presented as “natural” and “normal” – because for me they also prise open the normality and everyday life that I live in. Knowing that in an extreme situation one needs and looks for normality, so that one can make this extreme situation viable and maintain it – that casts a special light on everyday life and the normality that goes with it. What does it mean for my normality – how much of it is simply self-protection and how much just hanging on to certainty?” – Michael Schleinzer in conversation with Ursula Baatz

For those who have seen Schleinzer’s latest casting work for recent European hits The Counterfeiters, The Robber & The White Ribbon, there will be no surprise that the two main roles in Michael are perfectly filled. As the titular Michael, Michael Fuith switches between the ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ aspects of his character with consummate ease; one minute convincing the audience of his ordinary man status, the next reminding us of the horrors he commits (lest we forget). It’s Fuith’s poised performance, as well as Schleinzer’s sensitive handling of his film’s subject that prevents Michael from devolving into simply another film about a hidden monster in society. As the captive Wolfgang, David Rauchenberger’s performance is frighteningly believable, showing not only the naïve and fragile side any 10 year old child would exhibit, but also displaying convincing signs of Stockholm Syndrome. Dealing with subjects someone his age should never have to consider (how much of the film’s storyline was revealed to our young actor I don’t know), Rauchenberger’s character feels as developed and full of depth as that of his on-screen captor. Even more impressive when you consider this is Rauchenberger’s first major acting role.

With a sensitive subject that forces its viewers to consider an uncomfortable and reprehensible situation, in Michael, Schleinzer has created a film that many may find it hard to admit to liking or enjoying. Yet at the same time, the director has crafted a story, which he describes as something you must expose yourself to and he’s right! If film is made to elicit reaction and emotion from its audience, then why shouldn’t that reaction be awkward? And why shouldn’t those emotions be disgust? Whilst the majority of audiences will seek out the safe, escapist pleasures of romance, comedy or action, there are a select brave few who still demand to be challenged by the cinema they choose to watch. If you’re one of those looking to take the challenge, they don’t come much more demanding or rewarding than Michael.

Michael is available now through Curzon on Demand.

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