On the 23rd of August 2006 Natascha Kampusch escaped from the house where she had been held captive for eight years and knocked on a neighbor’s window to get help. The story got worldwide attention because of the length of her captivity, and because of the myriad ambiguities that can arise from the odd cohabitation between captive and jailer. The Stockholm syndrome comes to mind, but as we discovered when news of this long-winded captivity first emerged, it’s more complicated than that. The mental disarray that comes with abdicating to an aggressor over the course of weeks or years, the diffident bond that develops between hunter and prey, all are potentially rife with interesting problems for filmmakers to resolve.
Markus Schleinzer, a Michael Haneke collaborator (he previously casting directed for him) is up for the challenge of exploring this heart-rending subject. His first film, “Michael,” shown in competition at the Cannes Festival this year, has flipped the news story on its head somewhat. The girl from the headlines is now a dourly submissive ten year-old boy who has decent, though windowless, living quarters in a house basement (Kampusch was held in a very small space for long periods of time). In “Michael” the human hijacker, a plain thirtysomething man who sells insurance keeps things on a tight schedule, regulating the boy’s every activity.
Style-wise “Michael” is reminiscent of the Hanekean esthetic: static, long and medium-shots and a narrative that is episodic rather than sustained. Unlike what an American treatment of the Kampusch story would evince, and similarly to the characters in a Michael Haneke movie, personal motivations are not part of the calculus in “Michael.” And yet, how can you not ask yourself, why does this man do these things to the boy? We know is that he dutifully keeps himself isolated from his family—a very normal one, at that—turning down a request to spend Christmas with his sister. When a woman colleague starts circling around him, he dodges the overture, even throwing her out on her bum after she makes an unannounced visit to the house.
Is “Michael” a good movie? It is, in spite of its difficult subject matter. At Cannes the reaction was tepid, a mix of muffled applause and booing. The subject is so venomous that being confronted head-on by scenes of a pedophile’s life is probably too much for most people, including this writer—indeed, I had a hard time watching “Michael.” And yet, the signal is clear and loud: Marcus Schleinzer is an irreproachable filmmaker whose Cannes début foretells a successful career as filmmaker.