Directed by Markus Schleinzer
Well, now I’ve seen everything. But I had to watch it twice to confirm that I saw what I thought I saw: A black comedy about a pedophile kidnapper complete with pratfalls, slapstick timing and even a sunny theme song by Boney M. The humor is primarily used to ridicule and emasculate the pedophile. His victim plays it more or less straight. This is either an unholy masterpiece or just unholy, depending on one’s mood, moral laxity and intellectual sharpness at the time of viewing.
It’s not easy sometimes to laugh at painful scenarios that would be horrible to witness in real life. The idea of laughing at rape jokes or Holocaust jokes, for example, or two black men, one a freed man and one a house slave, calling each other niggers, still unnerves and even offends some people. Many need permission to laugh, or they just can’t do it. Or they end up laughing during a private moment but stifle it in public. Comedy challenges morality and sometimes laughing openly requires a larger cultural change to take place before people can become comfortable enough to feel that comedy is an acceptable way to address difficult subjects. Artists are usually there first.
My friend and comedian Kate Sedgwick used to tell a joke in her set about having the most amazing orgasm of her life.
It was during an abortion.
There might have been a pause after I heard the punch line, but I still guffawed, and I was the only one. (Sorry, my timing is not as good as Kate’s.)
The first time I watched Michael, directed by Markus Schleinzer, I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to laugh right away, although there were some clear invitations to do so, if not immediately. The shots that introduce the young boy who’s being held prisoner are menacing enough to discourage levity: There’s a shot of a closed door with a bar across it. It’s framed so we see half the wall to the side of it and half the door. A figure enters the frame and slides the bar to the right. He opens the door so that half the frame shows the dark interior of a room. We can’t see anything until a boy of about 10 timidly stumbles out of the darkness.
The opening shots that precede the introduction of the young boy depict scenes from the domestic life of a nondescript man presumably coming home from work. He drives up to his house (first shot), the car pulls into the garage, cut to interior garage. He unloads the car and brings in two large packages of in-bulk toilet paper; the TV plays the news; he fries up the German version of Spam; he sets the table, for two. Done preparing dinner, he unlocks a door leading to the basement. When he opens that door we see it’s lined on the inside with noise-muffling foam. Up until that detail there’s nothing particularly interesting or unique about the man, his house or how he lives his life. He’s not poor but he’s not well-off, either. There’s also nothing particularly interesting stylistically about the series of shots, other than an economical editing and shooting style that establishes character, tone and place very quickly. Nothing funny here so far.
The film shows the couple eating dinner and cleaning up afterward and in these shots we can note the boy’s deference and acquiescence but also his wariness. Here he’s just not sure about eating that meal:
After the meal is over, the boy asks if he can watch TV. (We don’t learn his name until the end credits although critics have made the erroneous assumption that we do. In the credits, he’s called Wolfgang.) After several seconds of seeming to ignore the boy’s request, the man pauses between bites and says yes. Cut to the two of them watching TV. The boy wants to watch more but the man puts him back in the room without turning the lights on and then goes back upstairs to watch TV alone, reclining on the couch.
I’m recounting the narrative in this detail to emphasize two things. One, that in its broad outlines it could be the normal interaction, the normal evening of a strict father and son. Two, that the strained normality, the straightforward, dry presentation of what goes on in this house is a set-up for a joke that will be made later. Critic Peter Bradshaw writing for the Guardian states that this sick mirror image of family life is a satirical comment on the “Stockholm syndrome inherent in all parent-child relationships.” That’s going to surprise some parents, I think. I disagree. Aside from a couple childlike lapses, the boy is consistently defiant, angry and becomes increasingly so. The father/son relationship in this film is a self-conscious, perverted parody of family life on the part of the pedophile, not of the film. In contrast, the film satirizes the pedophile.
After the man has had his fill of TV, he goes back downstairs and enters the boy’s room. Without depicting what goes on after that door is closed, there’s a quick cut to the man standing with his pants down in front a bathroom sink, pouring water from his cupped palm onto his genitals. It’s a medium shot from the back and to the side. If comedy is juxtaposition + timing — in other words, surprise — then this shot is funny. For me, it’s also the most horrific one in the whole film, the one where the true nature of the relationship between the man and the boy is revealed. If you need an example of the power of elliptical editing then this is a good one.
The man looks a little silly here. But that shot is not as funny as the close-up that precedes the film’s title card, just a few seconds later. Here we can see the man’s day planner which he’s using more like a diary. He’s allowed himself time for TV and for something else I can’t read in German. Farther down the page, he marks sex with the boy with an X.
That was the first time I felt like laughing but the humor is derisive. It’s an invitation to judge the ridiculousness of this fucked up and very pathetic man. That’s a comic approach the film will use again.
The film uses physical comedy and slapstick timing, as well, to ridicule the man, whose name we now know is Michael. Here, he’s going to the pharmacy to pick up medication for the boy who’s taken ill and has a bit of a mishap:
Here’s Michael on a ski trip attempting a slope with powder snow, assuring his more skilled friends that he can do it. He can’t:
The timing of the cuts is purely comic.
Here’s an emasculating comic moment as he tries and fails to fuck a woman from behind:
Finally, here’s the film’s most succinct comic bit in which Michael is shown as quite the dork and the boy is the more self-aware and smart “straight man” in a traditional comic duo:
Michael has recently watched a comedy on television with the lines: This is my knife and this is my cock. Which should I stick in you? When he tries to pull this on the stoic and unamused boy at the dinner table, the boy responds after the briefest of beats: The knife.
I had to laugh.
Before I watched Michael, I read and skimmed a number of reviews on Letterboxd. They did not prepare me for the film at all. Most used the word, disturbing, and that’s appropriate enough but none mentioned the elements of parody and slapstick. A subject like this makes people squirm and since there are few criminals considered more irredeemable than the child molester, many critics feel the need to go out of their way to emphasize how upsetting the scenario itself is, as if defending their own personal morality was more important than trying to figure out what the film was doing and what it was after. If they laugh, then they were implicated somehow in the victimization of this young boy. For me, failing to laugh doesn’t give the character his due, since the laughter is primarily directed at the perpetrator and not the boy or his situation. His agency is consistently shown as unbowed, even when the limits of his experience and physical power show how little he can do against his captor.
Interestingly, it’s in the moments when the character, the man Michael laughs or smiles — during the “This is my knife” scene, during a scene when the boys fights back ineffectually with his fists, and during a ride alone in his car when he’s singing along to the homophonic and deeply ironic disco song Sunny by Boney M — that’s when the audience is invited to hate him the most.