I caught Michael at its North American premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where several of my colleagues with children of their own made it adamantly clear to me that they refused to watch this film and were somewhat surprised by my intention to do so. Judging by their reactions, Schleinzer was more offensive than brave for broaching such an unseemly subject. In some ways, Michael could be classified as the same kind of crime horror film as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which likewise left me put off and disturbed. So many movies claim to stare into the heart of evil—and usually do so through stylized effects that help to distance the spectator from the film—but, Michael downplays the shock and spectacle to achieve a naturalistic and amazingly non-judgmental document that feels all the more uncomfortable for leaving no room to hide behind more customary genre conventions. I wasn't sure at all if Michael would traffic after TIFF, but it appears to be gaining traction, and has been scheduled in the World Cinema sidebar at the upcoming Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), where I predict some outraged walkouts.
My thanks to Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing for arranging time for me to sit down at TIFF with Schleinzer to wrestle with the controversy of his film. Schleinzer carries the stigmatization of that controversy squarely on his shoulders and it was a delight to find him so pleasant and well-spoken. Unfortunately, due to a technical issue with my recorder, our recorded conversation was corrupted and I was only able to save the first half of our conversation. Hopefully, down the line, Schleinzer and I will have the opportunity to complete this discussion. Until then, I offer what I have.
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Michael Guillén: Markus, as you can imagine I was profoundly challenged and disturbed by your film and wanted to have the chance to speak with you. It's my understanding that you are primarily an actor but have served as a casting director for some of the films of Michael Haneke, notably The White Ribbon (2009). What motivated you to approach directing and to start off with such a difficult subject?
Markus Schleinzer: It's actually the other way around. I've been a casting director for 17 years and sometimes—when I've been asked—I've played some parts in movies. During my work as a casting director, I have often been told by other directors to think about doing a movie myself. When Haneke and I were working on The White Ribbon, he was the one who said, "It's time. Go and make your own movie."
This was at the end of 2008 and—at that period of time—you couldn't pick up a newspaper or watch television without facing the issue of child abuse. It was everywhere. We had this huge case in Austria regarding Natascha Kampusch, you have probably heard of her? Then there was this big case as well about Josef Fritzl who kept an entire family in his cellar for 26 years. There had been an infamous incident in America as well, so the phenomenon was world-wide.
What disturbed me the most, at least in Austria and Europe, was that this issue was handled so sensationally by the press. I couldn't find another view. This was when I sat down and thought about what this different view on the subject, on this issue, might look like. How could one do a movie about such a subject without being provocative or scandalous or trying to earn quick money off the issue?
Guillén: So the media coverage inspired you to write a script that would present this issue from a less salacious perspective....
Schleinzer: It took me five days to write the script.
Guillén: Five days? So it had clearly been playing in your mind? How difficult was it, then, to sell this script and to secure the financing to film the story?
Schleinzer: It was not difficult at all, otherwise I would not have done it. The story was easily sold and we got all the money we needed immediately. There were no problems at all.
Guillén: Michael strikes me as a contemporary horror film presented as almost a documentary. As you went into production, I'm curious how you negotiated casting and working with your child actor David Rauchenberger? How did you explain to him what would be required of him in the role? How much of a context were you required to provide him in order for him to participate in such a grisly narrative?
Schleinzer: With the child it was very important from the beginning to be as honest with him as possible and not to hide anything. That started in the casting process. I brought a short synopsis with me when I started the casting process, in which I didn't hide anything at all. It wasn't the whole script, of course—it was just 10-15 sentences—but, it laid out the whole story. I didn't want the parents of children coming to the casting not knowing what the story was going to be about. I couldn't make a movie about child abuse and then abuse the people involved by not letting them know in advance what the movie was about, what would be shown and what would not be shown. We had four or five casting rounds from a pool of about 700-750 children. With every round I gave more and more and more information. By the last round there were still four boys I was considering and who interested me and I met with all their parents and gave them the complete script. I told them to take the script home, to read it thoroughly, and then we would meet again to discuss it. Finally, with David's parents, I explained again what would be seen, what would not be seen, and we drafted up a contract. Even after the movie was completed, I showed the footage to David's parents and asked them, "Is there anything you want me to cut out?"
I dealt the same way with David himself, speaking honestly to him about the film's issue of child abuse, and I have to say that his generation has a certain gift that our generation did not. David was 10 when we shot the movie, he's now 11, but when he was 9 there was a psychiatrist who came to his school and attended his class and taught the children not to go with the man who said,"I have a puppet in my car. Would you like to touch it?" So children of David's generation are already aware of certain dangers, which I knew nothing about as a child. When I was 10, I was told that adults were in complete control and to never doubt them. I would have gone with anyone.
I think it's possible to tell the truth on one hand and on the other hand to watch your language as you tell the truth. I have to say, I often felt ashamed talking to David about certain parts of the story, but—on the other hand—I think it's best for adults to be open-hearted and open-minded with children. Just because a parent is ashamed to talk about certain issues doesn't mean they disappear.
Guillén: Since you clearly have a talent for casting, what were the qualities you were looking for in your actors when you were seeking to cast not only the role of the boy but the leading role of Michael, the pederast, to achieve the dynamic you were hoping for in this film?
Schleinzer: That wasn't easy with the boy but with the adult role it was clear to me that I wanted a complete unknown actor, which is easy world-wide; but, I wanted to focus first, of course, on Austrian talent. I was shocked when the film was chosen for Cannes because I had thought of it as a small Austrian movie which might gain some following in Austria. So my thought was to use an unknown Austrian actor. Of course the people financing the film wanted me to use a known actor like Christoph Waltz so they could sell the movie better; but, I doubted that strategy because I knew that putting a star in this role meant the character would have more of a possibility for salvation, which isn't what I wanted. If people saw Christoph Waltz in this role, they would recognize him from his character in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, they would know him already as a person, and could thus draw a certain distance from the role in this film.
I'm very glad that I found Michael Fuith. At first, I wrote the script and then became depressed because I didn't know who to ask to play the role. But by a lucky chance, I was on a jury for the Austrian Filmmaking University and I had to watch about 80 short films and Fuith was in two of them. He hadn't acted before and these were his first feature parts. I thought he was perfect so I gave him the script, he read it, and then he called me and said, "I don't want to do it."
Guillén: Understandable. It would take a courageous actor to take on such a role.
Schleinzer: Yes, it demands a courageous actor. So then I said, "Okay, what's it going to take?" He asked for two more weeks to think about it and then he decided to do it.
Portrait of Markus Schleinzer courtesy of Viktor Bradzil, NGF.