One might be inclined to see Michael as the thinking man’s alternative to the films of Todd Solondz, which somehow imply that pedophilia is a subject worthy of sympathy and understanding. But in Michael, Markus Schleinzer chose for his directorial debut a high-realist reimagining of the life of a pedophile and his kidnapped victim, a ten-year-old boy whom he keeps locked in his basement.
Schleinzer, who has spent most of his career as a casting director with a distinguished backlog of films, including The Piano Teacher, Women Without Men, and The White Ribbon, opts for subtlety over sensationalism in his treatment of one of the most delicate—not to mention omnipresent—issues of the past decade. Why choose such a hard subject for one’s first film? How does one represent a character so fundamentally unsympathetic? We had to ask, and spoilers follow.
If you were to put this film in a genre, what would it be? Or does this film create a genre of its own?
I have to confess that I never thought about approaching the film with the stylistic devices of a genre, and interpreting my own work feels curious. Maybe I can answer this question in a few years time with more distance. But Michael is the story of a crime, and there are different genres for telling that story. In horror movies we all know that the girl who is home alone in the beginning will be the first victim, so we can lean back and just wait for the killing, knowing what is coming. But Michael holds no kind of safety like that for its audience.
How long have you nursed this concept?
I have been absorbed by this for quite a long time. It started as an experiment: Can a casting director become a director? I wanted to try it, and was looking for ideas for my first screenplay in late 2008. In that time the issue of child abuse was a worldwide phenomenon that dominated the media. You couldn’t read a newspaper or watch television without hearing about some horrifying crime committed against children. It touched people on all levels of society. Including me. To me it seemed that child abuse, like violence decades ago, had become sensationalized to the point of becoming entertainment – you could see it in the way how TV reportage was presented for effect and how newspapers, with their catchy headlines, began to use the topic to create sensation or a scandal for the sake of entertainment and selling papers. I was even more shocked to find out that I had been a perfect consumer for this kind of coverage, willingly following it in a shortsighted way. I wanted to take the issue back to a more serious place.
Michael was one of three stories that I had begun writing in late 2008 and then shared with three friends one afternoon (Alexander Tschernek, Marisa Growaldt and Kathrin Resetarits, a thousand thanks!) We talked almost exclusively about Michael, excitedly and fervidly, about the difficulty and the danger in telling such a story. After this discussion, I sat down and wrote the script in five days.
What do you think the subject of pedophilia allows for–as a fictional subject–that a normative plot-line doesn’t?
The Janus face! On the one hand you have to treat this subject like every other story you want to tell: You have to be quite clear about what you want talk about before you start talking. On the other hand there are issues you have to be very careful with, in terms of the story-telling, to avoid any kind of misunderstanding and further abuse. I disliked the idea of making a movie about this by which other people could get turned on or could use it for their personal voyeurism. It went so far that we checked all of the sweets the boy was eating in the movie to make sure to exclude any kind of phallic interpretation.
I found the plot point of Michael’s death almost comic–the speech the priest makes at the end about impatience–was this meant as a criticism of the church’s need to simplify things? Or of eulogies in general?
I found it interesting that throughout the film we get almost no information about Michael, his past, his present or any kind of biographical details that could give explanation for his actions – and in the end there is a priest eulogizing him who doesn’t know him at all, talking about some little episode from his life which he might gotten minutes before the funeral from his sister. Of course that is a criticism on community. But blaming the church is not sufficient. It is more about the outsourcing of many things belonging to our lives like maturing, malady, death – and the loss of being capable to deal with these things.
What do you think the desire of the audience is in regards to Michael’s ‘comeuppance’? Do you think most people who watch the film will be glad to see him die in the end?
There is a fierce fighting within myself which finally drove me to this project. I’m definitely not free of desiring the most awful punishment possible to perpetrators of that kind. I’m also a dry bush burning high in emotions if I hear of crimes like that. And I’ve learned that I’m mostly driven by fear. It is a large field of discussion which extends into many social issues, laws, the debate on death penalty. We all know that hardliners in this discussion are working with our fears. But I don’t think that fear is the perfect and only emotion to handle society’s problems. Everyone has to decide on his own if he feels relief in wishing someone to be dead. And everyone has to take responsibility of his wishes and actions. Cowering in the mob will not be indulged.
Do you feel it’s more frightening when monstrous acts are humanized, or that it makes us more apt to put ourselves in a sympathetic—and thus compromising—position in regards to characters that are violently deviant?
When a crime takes place, the neighborhood’s immediate reaction is almost always stereotypically incredulous: no one had a clue, no one would have ever thought, he was always so nice, helpful, etc…but after the initial shock, the desire to distance oneself sets in: actually he was always a little strange, aloof, odd,…and then before long this distancing, as part of one’s own normality, becomes vital for self-preservation and must be maximized. Because the security of our normality is holy to us and can never be endangered. Therefore we create these images of the monster because they guarantee absolute safety and distance. The monster image is a great model of explanation because it draws an uncrossable line between one’s own world and that of evil, which only exsists seemingly to accent the existence of the good (whatever that is?) And haven’t we perfectly been fed by the image of the easily recognizable bad guy living in his sharply drawn black world?
Yet many of the most horrifying crimes are carried out by seemingly normal people who function well in all areas of life – no one would ever think they were capable of doing these things. The discussion about their actions, deeds, crimes, about perpetrators and victims on the level of the monster will never be sensible because the only purpose is to create distance from them. And I really can understand that. No one wants to identify with such a person/perpetrator. But this doesn’t help anybody. A society demonstrates its level of development by how it deals with its perpetrators. And distancing does not work. And that has to do with all areas. Not just pedophilia. Thus with this in mind it was important to show Michael in a normal context, not as a monster. Some of it seemed logical, some of it absurd, and some things were despicable. But I knew of no other way.
The absence of a soundtrack makes one pay more attention when music does show up in the film. Did you want music to have a specific function in this film?
It was the concept from the beginning to give the audience the most space possible for their own thinking so as not to dictate any kind of emotional response with music. Above all, I would not have known what kind of music or instruments should be able to personalize a pedophile (harp? strings?). So there is only “music“ if Michael listens to the radio or watches TV, which he does a lot. In my neighborhood, there are a lot of people who stayed alone after a divorce. And with these people, I noticed something (which I do too from time to time). All have a similar behavior with radio or televison. It’s turned on all day. It’s such a friendly, one-sided dialogue partner, who never will let silence take over. Because there might be depression in silence. But there might be thoughts and reflection aswell. Maybe that’s the reason why so many of us are finding silence such an unbearable thing.
Michael will run from February 15th to the 28th at Film Forum.