THE TITLE CHARACTER of writer-director Markus Schleinzer's arresting first feature is thirty-five, balding, bespectacled, weak-chinned, a bit doughy around the middle. He is a punctilious employee of an Austrian insurance firm, reporting to work in crisply pressed shirts (which he irons himself), V-neck sweaters, and ties; his assiduity earns him a promotion. A bachelor, he returns every night to a modest, spotless home. After lowering his electric shutters, he sets the table for himself and his dinner companion: the ten-year-old boy he keeps locked up in his basement and sexually abuses.
A meticulously observed, tonally assured film that exposes just how banal evil is, Michael recounts the last five months of the relationship between the pedophile (played by Michael Fuith) and his prisoner, whose name is never uttered but who is identified in the closing credits as Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger, making his acting debut). The Vienna-born Schleinzer began as a casting director, notably working with other Austrian filmmakers such as Ulrich Seidl, Jessica Hausner, and Michael Haneke, for whom Schleinzer coached the child actors--whose characters also suffer unspeakable abuses by stern patriarchs--in the grim, pre-World War I movie The White Ribbon (2009).
Schleinzer's skill in guiding Rauchenberger in a project that treats such an abominable subject never falters. Wolfgang is highly vulnerable but fiercely intelligent, and the novice actor manages to convey a steely acuity even in the most horrific circumstances. The boy's spirit is never fully broken by his immurement in a suhterra nean room, where he somehow manages to defend his psychic core from continual violation. Though watching Michael is certainly an uncomfortable experience, as the young protagonist is constantly imperiled, Schleinzer earns his viewers' trust early on: The instances of sexual assault are implied, the director cutting after just enough detail has been parceled out.
Forgoing exploitation, prurience, and simplistic moralizing, Schleinzer relies on dispassionate, frequently dialogue-free scrutiny instead. To ensure that Michael, a purely fictional creation, bore some semblance to real-life predators, the director asked a forensic psychiatrist to vet his completed script. (The psychiatrist in question, Dr. Heidi Kastner, was an expert witness for the prosecution in the 2009 trial of Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter captive in a bunker under his home in Austria for twenty-four years, repeatedly raping her and fathering her seven children. Kastner has a cameo in Schleinzer's film, appearing as an interviewee on a TV news segment about missing children.) Michael's appalling acts are made all the more so by their juxtaposition with the surface ordinariness that helps conceal them: the insipid facade of the diligent, if aloof, office worker; of the mildly concerned neighbor able to make small talk about a missing cat; of the skiing enthusiast (though an inept one) who goes to a mountain resort with two buddies. …