Who knows what is going on behind the doors we walk past every day? The house that Michael (Michael Fuith) lives in is a nondescript one, indistinguishable from all others on this suburban street, somewhere in Austria. The same descriptions could be used for its inhabitant, as Michael is hardly a man who stands out in a crowd. To his fellow office workers, he's a pleasant character, but timid and cripplingly shy, barely able to sustain a conversation with them and clandestine about his activities outside the office. After his working day, Michael quietly slips away and returns to the house in which he lives alone. Well, he doesn't exactly live alone.
Michael has a prisoner in his basement, a young boy called Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger). We don't know how long he has held this boy captive, but certain clues suggests that it has been some years; "Why don't you get the decorations this time" he says as they prepare for Christmas, and when Wolfgang writes a letter to his parents, Michael stores it away with the rest. A routine has been established with Wolfgang joining Michael for evening meals, but the boy spends most of his time in a custom-built, soundproofed, windowless room under the house, locked behind a huge iron door six inches thick. Occasionally, Michael will go downstairs and sodomise the boy, but director Markus Schleinzer thankfully gives us no glimpse of the act itself. All we see is Michael standing at a sink after the fact, nonchalantly washing his genitals.
For his debut film, Schleinzer has picked the most troubling and emotive subject matter imaginable, and has chosen to deal with it in the most dispassionate manner possible. His stripping away of sensationalism for much of the movie depicts Michael's actions as just another part his banal existence, re-emphasising at every turn how ordinary the character is. There's something childlike and pathetic in Fuith's impressive lead performance; he seems out of his depth with people his own age and much more comfortable conversing with youngsters whom he meets as he loiters at a go-kart track. On that occasion, he almost succeeds in enticing a boy back to his lair before he is rumbled by the child's father and beats a hasty retreat. Life in the outside world appears to be one of constant torment and frustration for Michael, who can only exert some semblance of control over the youngster he keeps at home, although even he is capable of being petulant and resistant to Michael's advances too.
Any film about paedophilia that emerges from Austria comes loaded with our knowledge of the country's dark recent history, with the Fritzl case and the story of Natascha Kampusch, whose imprisonment and abuse partly inspired Michael. Schleinzer probably intends his film to be more universal than that, but what, if anything, does Michael really have to say about its subject beyond exposing us all to the banality of evil? The director learned his trade working alongside Michael Haneke on a number of films and he shares a number of stylistic traits with that great filmmaker (as well as fellow countryman Ulrich Seidl), but Haneke always at his most potent when driving home the thematic point of his material, which is something that seems reluctant or unable to do. One wonders what exactly is the audience's reward or payoff for sitting uncomfortably through this queasily unsettling picture?
Instead of offering any such compensation, Schleinzer seems content to manipulate our emotions by placing Wolfgang's welfare in jeopardy at a number of points. When we watch Michael clumsily attempt to join in with work colleagues on a skiing trip, we mentally consider the consequences for the boy if he were to suffer a terrible accident. Later, in a couple of shocking scenes, Michael is indisposed for a length of time that proves agonising to watch, with nobody but him aware of Wolfgang's presence beneath his home. It's brilliantly staged by the director and undeniably effective, but the teasing final shot that strives for a sense of horrible ambiguity simply comes across as the punchline to a sick joke. Schleinzer knows how to put a film together and hold audience emotions in his grip; perhaps next time he'll put those talents to use on a deeper exploration of his subject.