MICHAEL Is the Austrian Pedophile Drama You’ve Been Waiting For!

Judging from its matter-of-fact plot synopsis – “A drama focused on five months in the life of pedophile who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement.” – first-time director/writer Markus Schleinzer‘s drama Michael isn’t going to appeal to a wide audience. It’s certainly the darkest character study I’ve seen in recent memory and also the most well crafted. Schleinzer, a disciple of Michael Haneke (Funny Games), presents the character of Michael without passing any judgement, which makes it all the more unsettling.

Michael is a grumpy middle-class insurance salesman who from 9-5 works in his cubicle, begrudgingly goes out for drinks with his co-workers, and even goes on ski trips with them. But in general he’s testy and tends to keep to himself. When he returns home in the evenings, he shares some quality time with Wolfgang, a young boy who Michael keeps locked in the basement. They share awkward dinners together. They watch TV before bed. Michael even takes Wolfgang for a nice afternoon at the petting zoo. That wasn’t meant to be a euphemism – he seriously takes him to a petting zoo.

And, you know, Michael is a pedophile with a kidnapped boy in his basement, so…he does things to Wolfgang. Schleinzer wisely only shows us what we need to see, which is still highly disturbing but never graphic. These moments make up a very small fraction of the film and are cleverly implied by Michael washing up afterwards and marking off the date in his day-planner. We’re always with Michael, played with maximum creepiness by Michael Fuith, as he works, shops, and cleans his home. After a while, his routine feels normal – too normal. And that’s where the brilliance of the film lies. This evil man is a slave to routine like a lot of us and it’s really disconcerting to watch.

Michael’s world starts to spiral due to uncontrollable events and the secret of his boy-toy is threatened when a co-worker takes interest in Michael. On top of this intrusion, Wolfgang is getting lonely during the day and wants a brother (he already has a TV, what else does a little boy need?!). But even through these complications, the film’s bleak tone is never compromised by a police investigation or a pounding chase between Michael and an escaped Wolfgang. The end is sure to spark heated conversation between viewers.

Michael is a brilliant debut film that puts us at the dinner table with pure evil. The final 10 minutes are absolutely agonizing – I was squirming in my seat from the unbearable suspense (and from hanging out with a pedophile for so long). It’s surprisingly hilarious in places as well, as it satires the parent-child relationship. The horrible sexual abuse is kept off-screen while the real horror of the disgustingly aberrant routine of Michael and Wolfgang’s home life is front and center.

I highly recommend catching Michael on Netflix Watch Instantly before it’s gone. I also recommend watching it with someone else – a grandparent maybe – because you’re going to want to talk about the end.