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Arab Today, arab today Michael

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Brilliant and macabre, this debut feature from Austrian film-maker Markus Schleinzer shows the ordinary life of a man called Michael, played by Michael Fuith. As well as being a conscientious middle-manager in an insurance office, Michael is a paedophile, keeping a 10-year-old boy locked in a reinforced cellar beneath his bungalow. The film is not merely a chilling insight into the day-to-day banality of evil, but also an unbearably suspenseful and tense drama. I can\'t think of any other movie recently in which I have wanted so much to yell instructions at the screen – especially in the final five minutes, as we approach, in Graham Greene\'s words, the worst horror of all. Schleinzer is a former actor, and a prolific casting director with over 60 features to his credit, a judge of faces who has worked with Ulrich Seidl, Jessica Hausner and, most importantly, Michael Haneke. He has clearly learned a good deal from the master\'s icy clarity and control. Haneke was reported to have shown an interest in directing Schleinzer\'s screenplay; I wonder how different this might have looked with Haneke in charge. The adult tormentor of a child in Haneke\'s Funny Games reveals himself to be armed with a cosmic rewind button – not the case here. Michael himself is a very boring Pooter-Satan. He is a balding, bespectacled man who appears to be in a permanent, mildly bad mood and possibly clinically depressed. He is grumpy with his prisoner, a boy called Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), allowing him up out of the cellar after a hard day in the office, fixing him supper, doing the washing-up with him and then permitting some television before bedtime. We see him disappear for certain special visits to Wolfgang\'s bedroom cell, after which he washes himself in the bathroom and marks off the event in a desk diary. Occasionally, Michael will take Wolfgang for excruciating days out to the countryside, walking with him as if with an invisible handcuff, in a prisoner-in-transit formation. Heartbreakingly, little Wolfgang looks around at another dad out walking with his son, but such is the miasma of horror in which the film exists, it seems possible that this is just another paedophile with his victim. Michael and Wolfgang\'s home life is a surreal nightmare: when Wolfgang gets a high temperature, Michael succumbs to a tense, speculative daydream that is indistinguishable from real life. Later, he watches a crude porn film on TV, and it is quite unclear whether the next scene is a dream or waking reality. There are no firm clues about why Michael is like this, although there are some agonisingly clear hints as to how and where he found his victim. At the end, we hear of some innocuous things about Michael\'s own childhood and about his being \"impatient\", but nothing to explain things. He and Wolfgang are completing a jigsaw together, and the boy complains that some pieces are missing. Michael explains curtly that it doesn\'t matter. You can still see what the picture is. When I first saw Michael last year, I wondered whether this film really told us anything new, for all its brilliance, and for all that it offered us the conventional enticements of plot twists and turns. Arguably, Michael can\'t compare in horror to the real-life Kampusch and Fritzl cases that have inspired it. But, for me, a second viewing allowed the implications to emerge. Michael is a scabrous, satirical comment on the Stockholm syndrome inherent in all parent-child relationships. What is disturbing about this story is not simply the sexual abuse, which is kept off-camera, but the way Michael and Wolfgang fall so easily into a grotesque routine that looks like family life: this is the theatre of normality that takes place up on the ground floor. (Here, the movie is comparable to Haneke\'s The Seventh Continent, another truly horrible vision of violence, secrecy and family dysfunction.) Unlike the paedophiles in Todd Solondz\'s Happiness (1998) and Nicole Kassell\'s The Woodsman (2004), or even the child-killer in Fritz Lang\'s M (1931), Michael is supremely undramatic and dull. He is subdued at work, and testy, unpleasant and cold at home. What has made him like this? What else but the normal, dreary cares and worries of being responsible for a child – the terrible imprisonment of being a single parent? And the film offers something else: a vision of male relationships themselves. In the brief timespan covered by the movie, Wolfgang begins to grow up, just a little; just perceptibly, he is approaching manhood, horrifyingly shaped and guided by Michael. In one of the film\'s most mysterious scenes, Wolfgang gives Michael a Christmas card on which he has drawn, not a horribly ironic or parodic daddy-son picture, but two figures of equal height. Has he imagined his grownup future alongside his captor? Michael is more furious and scared by this than anything else: imagining the future, and by that token understanding the present, is something of which Michael is incapable. The performances from Fuith and Rauchenberger are superb, and Schleinzer\'s direction and Gerald Kerkletz\'s cinematography have the touch and sheen of cold steel.

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