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The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

– Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)

The opening scenes of Michael are deceivingly unremarkable. The title character returns home from a day at work where he is an insurance salesman. He proceeds through the exercises of home life (groceries, dinner, the washing-up), and then proceeds to the basement where behind a bolted door is a 10-year old boy. The implications are painfully clear, but the focus of the film is not on the acts themselves, but the strange and grotesquely domestic arrangement of Michael and the boy, Wolfgang. It is this collection of moments of banal domesticity interleaved with spates of horror in succession which comprise an astutely observed character study, both chillingly disturbing and darkly comic at times.

The influence of Michael Haneke is hardly inconspicuous. As a former casting agent for the auteur, Schleinzer appears to have taken extensive notes on the cool, clinical approach to the human condition. Stripped of exploitative sensationalism and overt judgement, Schleinzer’s lens is calm and controlled, allowing silences to speak in place of words. Critically, like Haneke, the potency of the film’s effectiveness lies firmly in the power of suggestion, rather than display. The horror of the narrative is carefully outside the range of focus, only allowing glimpses of it to seep it through the borders, intentionally unnerving the audience with increasing trepidation.

Michael himself, in a superbly restrained performance from Michael Fuith, is a thoroughly unremarkable person – aside from his one ignominious character flaw. He is socially awkward, unadventurous, and very much loved by his family – hardly the portrait of the paedophile that newscasters spurn with relish. Michael has perfected the art of blending into the background, whether by drab colours against drab wallpaper, or passing unnoticed through a race car track searching for a new victim. He quickly becomes lost in the macabre theatre of normality and escapism that he has created, absurdly child-like himself. His dysfunctional relationship with David is not easily definable, made all the more disturbing by the ease with which scenes of domesticity in a parent-child fashion (day trips to the zoo, arranging a Christmas tree, caring for Wolfgang when he is ill) are juxtaposed with the reality of an abuser-victim relationship; while his severe emotional disturbances prevent him from realising the perverse inequality of the relationship.

Perhaps the audience will find it difficult to reconcile that Michael’s needs are in fact not so dissimilar from anyone else’s – in his view, ‘to be loved’, however nefariously his needs are realised. Perhaps even more disturbing is the ease with which he passes through life, unnoticed and unremarkable – the “banality of evil”. Moments of black irony burn with scathing satirical commentary on relationships in general, but in society’s insatiable thirst for understanding the mind of a villain, what is more interesting is how the knowledge of people we think we know sometimes requires serious revision.

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