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Normality and the Imitation Thereof

Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut Michael pushes the boundaries of character study. Now playing at Film Forum.

Courtesy of Strand Releasing

One of the most hotly debated and controversial films in competition at Cannes last year, Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer’s Michael makes its US theatrical debut this week at Film Forum. Formerly a casting director who has worked extensively with Michael Haneke, amongst others (Schleinzer recently cast The White Ribbon), Schleinzer decided to step into the role of writer/director with a fairly challenging task at hand: creating a non-moralizing, distanced portrait of a kidnapper and child molester.

The titular Michael, while hardly charismatic or particularly affable, nevertheless seems more or less “normal” in most ways. He does well at work (insurance) and is up for a promotion. He goes on a skiing trip with two friends and ends up picking up a waitress. He sings along to pop music in his car, quite poorly. The outlying element in his life, of course, is that he keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement.

The film begins in media res, with the earlier stage of Wolfgang’s abduction and acclimation to Michael’s world unaddressed in the backstory. In an extremely distanced, clinical manner, Schleinzer depicts the relationship between the two of them, which Schleinzer appropriately describes in the following interview as an “imitation of normality” – some of the most resonant scenes in Michael come when we see Michael and Wolfgang, captor and captive, eating dinner together, or doing the dishes, or watching television. Obviously, there will be plenty of detractors on moral grounds – is Schleinzer trying to humanize a man whom plenty would refer to as a monster? I spoke to Schleinzer over Skype recently (he lives in Austria), and he made his argument for the film.


Director Markus Schleinzer / Courtesy of Strand Releasing 

Tribeca: It’s interesting how the film takes a bold position toward Michael; you refuse to moralize or psychologize the character’s actions and psyche. Did that formal approach arise alongside the original story idea, or afterward?

Markus Schleinzer: That was from the very beginning. Being honest, I have to say that this story was with me for quite a long time before I decided to make a movie about it. There have been so many stories concerning child abuse cases in Austria and all over the world. There has been a certain kind of dialogue in society on this topic of child abuse. In late 2008, I was thinking about becoming a director, and I sat down and thought about what might be interesting for a first feature film, and there it was again. From the very beginning, I really wanted to approach the character the way we did it, in the end.

Tribeca: What were your thoughts on the way those child abuse cases were portrayed in the Austrian media?

Markus Schleinzer: Well, it’s so easy to judge the media. I’m afraid I have to blame myself. Finding out how I am functioning is one part of what drove me to the project. I had to find out that I was functioning, probably, quite similarly to most of us – I’m such a good consumer of media, yellow journalism – there’s so much fear about all these things. It’s very hard to get a clear take on the subject. We all know how media works most of the time. It’s about entertainment, about selling something. Concerning the two huge crime cases in Austria – Natascha Kampusch and the Fritzl family – it was just yellow journalism dealing with it. We all followed that journalism into the stories. So much was invented. So much was brought up just for pure entertainment. It was quite a shock for me when I realized that I enable this kind of entertainment, if I don’t have my own thoughts about the cases, if I’m happy to just follow the storylines other people create. So there’s no use in blaming the media, we have to start blaming ourselves, to follow our own thoughts.

So I wanted to bring the issue to a more serious place, and give space for the audience to not follow a foreign thinking, but rather have the space for their own thoughts.

Courtesy of Strand Releasing 

Tribeca: It seems like one of the thrusts of the film is the idea that merely vilifying or sensationalizing these perpetrators is not a helpful thing to do.

Markus Schleinzer: That’s a fight I have within myself. When I hear about a crime case like this, I’m also getting an emotional high of anger. There’s nothing more holy to us than our normality; there’s nothing more holy to us than knowing that the good and the evil, the black and the white, are clearly divided. But they’re not. So creating these monster images in the media just helps us get the biggest distance possible from those people. We want as much distance as possible – no one likes to be near a perpetrator, confronted by a perpetrator, no one wants to see that perhaps some of their actions are similar to ours. But to my mind, a society’s development can be measured by how well it confronts its perpetrators. That’s not just concerning pedophilia, that’s concerning all kinds of perpetrators. It’s doesn’t mean we have to like the actions – sometimes we are unable to understand them – but we have to meet them on eye level, and only then is discussion possible.

Tribeca: You spoke about the idea of normality. For the most part, Michael seems normal enough, so to speak, and then you have one part of his life that is obviously an abnormality, almost an abnormality that enables or supports his ability to otherwise exist normally in society. Do you see that as a common societal trait – engaging in some kind of excessive behavior in order to be able to otherwise adjust to societal norms?

Markus Schleinzer: I have to confess, I have no clue what normality is. Normality is a huge field. My way of living is definitely different from your way of living. So normality is perhaps something that, as a society, we say, okay, we can go to that point, and beyond that, I call the police. On the other hand, abnormality is a point, because we know what abnormality is – it’s scientific, we have laws discerning it. It seems so important to us to have safety. I have the feeling that this way of treating the idea of normality just leads us to be lonely people. We treat our normality like fences that we can build up around our homes.

Courtesy of Strand Releasing 

Tribeca: But do you think that it’s significant that, in the other aspects of Michael’s life, he doesn’t exhibit particularly disturbing behavior? He’s able to be promoted at work, he has friends who take him on a ski trip. He’s not unable to get along, and succeed, to a certain degree, in society.

Markus Schleinzer: Of course not, because he’s a human being and not a monster. A monster is a creature out of a fairy tale. Godzilla, King Kong, these are monsters. This is very hard to understand and to take, but a pedophile is not a criminal. A criminal is only a man who is interested in kids. He becomes criminal when, by free will, he decides to abuse a child. You are born a pedophile. That’s very hard for our society to take on and deal with.

Michael, of course, has to live the most possible normal life, since he wishes to. He wants the same thing we all want out of our lives – he wants a relationship. He wants to have happiness, to share certain moments with his partner. The problem is his partner is a kid. There is the crime.

It’s about imitation – an imitation of normality. How must it be, to be a pedophile? You probably find out when you’re 9, 10, 11, when the kids you are interested in stay the same age, and you keep getting older. Then there comes a time when the mothers, the aunts, the grandmothers are saying to you, okay, when are we going to meet your first girlfriend?

Courtesy of Strand Releasing

So from the very beginning, this man is becoming an invisible person. He has to learn how to stay invisible as early as possible – telling lies, building up a life around himself which protects him from people and their investigation. There is nothing better to hide a crime than normality. If you go out and stay like everyone else, you can disappear in society, just by playing by the rules of society. He works, he eats, he drinks, he drives his car, doesn’t play the music too loud, pays his taxes. That’s the perfect way to hide a crime. On the other hand, he really wants to have it. Being an outlaw in society, he must feel very tired of his charade. So what he wants is to be as normal as possible, so there’s a lot of imitation of normality – he and Wolfgang celebrate Christmas like anyone else, go to the zoo like anyone else, and so on.


It’s quite interesting to me, and I was asking myself, how much of my daily living is not my daily living, it’s just imitation? I was born and raised in Austria, and I was taught how to eat with a fork and knife. If I was brought up somewhere else, perhaps I would eat with my fingers or with something else. I learned this from my parents. Huge parts of my everyday living are just imitation.

Michael opens Wednesday, February 15, at Film Forum in NYC. Find tickets.

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