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by Markus Schleinzer

grade: 7

With a directorial approach that is as essential as possible – and with evident influences from the cinema of Michael Haneke – Markus Schleinzer – together with Kathrin Resetarits – has opted in Michael for a skilful minimal direction in staging the events of the two protagonists. A minimal direction made up of essential shots, fixed camera and very little dialogue. In competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2011.

Out of sight

After working for several years as an actor, casting director and assistant director for names like Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, Michael Glawogger and many others, Markus Schleinzer, together with his colleague Kathrin Resetarits, finally signed his directorial debut in 2011 with Michael, co-produced by Nikolaus Geyrhalter and presented in competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2011.

This important Michael is based on the story of young Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped at the age of ten and held captive in a cellar for eight years by Wolfgang Priklopil, until her escape in 2006. Such an event – similarly to the events in Amstetten, in which a man kept his daughter sequestered in a cellar for several years – clearly had a huge resonance throughout Austria, to the point that Schleinzer was inspired by it to try his hand for the first time with film direction. And if, as is understandable, the influences of his masters make themselves felt here loud and clear, the director and actor nevertheless sought his own, personal language and his own approach to the story.

The story staged here, therefore, kicks off just before the Christmas holidays, in a small village in Austria. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a man in his forties, apparently leading a normal life, with a job as a clerk and cordial relations with his neighbours. Yet, no one knows that the man keeps a ten-year-old boy named Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) locked up in his cellar.

With a directorial approach that is as essential as possible, Markus Schleinzer has opdet for a minimal mise en scene in staging the story of the two protagonists. A mise en scene made up of essential shots, fixed camera and very little dialogue. And this is particularly well suited to what is portrayed here, given the detachment of Michael himself and that of the child towards his kidnapper, who in vain seems to seek some complicity with him. Similarly, the colours of the sets – particularly dull if one thinks of a setting around Christmas time – well convey the idea of a cold, austere environment in which one immediately feels uncomfortable. A cramped, claustrophobic environment from which there seems to be no real escape. Not even in the rare moments filmed outdoors.

A mise-en-scene, this one by Michael, undoubtedly studied down to the smallest detail. And yet, despite this, one cannot fail to recognise clear similarities with the cinema of Ulrich Seidl or, above all, Michael Haneke – with whom Schleinzer himself collaborated for years. And not only with regard to the numerous fixed shots. In staging the suffering of young Wolfgang, Markus Schleinzer decided to show practically nothing in front of the camera. Nothing violent happens in front of the lens, except for a scene in which the child tries to rebel by beating up a Michael who, on the contrary, seems almost amused, confident that he can get the upper hand. But if, for his part, Michael Haneke often plays with off-screen, allowing us to hear what is happening away from the camera (see, for instance, the scene of the massacre in Funny Games or the moment when a child is beaten by his father, while we are given a glimpse of the closed door of the latter’s studio in The White Ribbon), Markus Schleinzer opts mainly for a studied editing, within which it sudden cuts let us imagine what might be happening out of sight. And even this approach, in the end, can be said to be sufficiently successful, although far less impactful than the mise-en-scene adopted by Haneke himself.

If, therefore, in this debut feature, Schleinzer almost gives us the impression as if he has yet to ‘take flight’, at the same time we must acknowledge the director’s good mastery as well as his never predictable narrative effectiveness. The story of Michael and his young prisoner hits the spectator like a punch to the stomach. And it is not afraid to seem excessively harsh, excessively merciless. Or even to point the finger at a society that, under the surface, keeps the most sordid secrets. Just as, in 2014, Ulrich Seidl showed in his In the Basement (if we want to think about disturbing stories that take place in the cellars of apparently respectable houses).

Schleinzer’s directing career, after this interesting debut, had a sequel. And in Angelo (2018) – his second feature – we can see how the director has clearly become stylistically more mature and self-confident. But that, of course, is another story.

Original title: Michael
Directed by: Markus Schleinzer
Country/year: Austria / 2011
Running time: 97’
Genre: drama
Cast: Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger, Christine Kain, Ursula Strauss, Victor Tremmel, Xaver Winkler, Thomas Pfalzmann, Gisela Salcher, Isolde Wagner, Markus Hochholdinger, Susanne Rachler, David Oberkogler, Samy Goldberger, Martina Poel, Mika Sakurai, Paul Karall, Alicia Limpahan, Gerhard Lutz, Hanus Polak Jr., Markus Schleinzer, Barbara Willensdorfer, Jim Holderied, Samuel Jung, Margot Vuga, Heidi Kastner
Screenplay: Markus Schleinzer
Cinematography: Gerald Kerkletz
Produced by: Cine Tirol, Filmfonds Wien, FISA, NIkolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion, ORF, Österreichisches Filminstitut

Info: the page of Michael on iMDb; the page of Michael on the website of the Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion