Markus Schleinzer once had the job of casting salient faces for Michael Haneke, but his directorial debut Michael is too much of a facsimile to succeed as anything other than a hollow portrait.
Aside from having a ten-year-old boy locked in his bolted basement, our protagonist couldn’t be more ordinary.
Balding, bespectacled and as stern as work-shirt’s fastened top-button suggests, Michael (Michael Fuith) looks after the inhibited Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) with a primness expected from an absent parent’s acquainted paediatrician.
It’s only after an abrupt skip-ahead to Michael washing his genitals in the sink do we realise that he has just had sex with his prisoner. It’s also clear that director Markus Schleinzer will henceforth study nothing but evil’s banality.
As Schleinzer catalogues from one daily task to the next, Michael is merely a figure in clinically framed compositions.
Whether it is washing the dishes, ironing his clothes, or installing a bunk bed, his posture is at one with his geometric confines, his routinely compulsions mirroring Schleinzer’s own inexorable formalism.
The occasional cross-cutting between Fuith’s man-child and Rauchenberger’s pallid youth – via contrasts between Michael drunken singing with Wolfgang’s tantrums, or between Michael recovering from a traffic accident in hospital, while Wolfgang is bedridden with a flu - attempts to ascertain their inner lives, but it’s all psychological shorthand.
By eliciting Dog Days’ visual austerity, but eschewing Ulrich Seidl’s swelteringly graphic approach to subject matter, Schleinzer does avoid exploitation.
But his evasive approach to characterisation reproduces a problem that befalls other directors belonging to Austria’s current ‘feel-bad’ cinema trend, including its arch master Michael Haneke.
From the impersonal cynicism and the familiarly prissy sleight of hand on display extending to horrific car accidents, and lastly a needlessly glib use of Bony M.’s ‘Sunny’ during the closing credits, Schleinzer’s vision disturbs us only for how his empathy can’t outspread to fictional characters – and, in turn, to his audience.