Stories of imprisoned children—foster kids kept in cages, runaways shackled in basements—are never far from contemporary life. If it's not a new headline, it's a fresh episode of Law & Order: SVU, in which violent childhood suffering is presented as righteous-indignation porn for the nation. The French film Polisse—screening in the upcoming Seattle International Film Festival and landing for a theatrical run soon after—aims to upend such sensationalism with a vérité-style exploration of the day-to-day operations of the Child Protection Unit of Paris. The cycles of stasis and horror it portrays earned the film the Jury Prize at Cannes.
Michael is something else. Written and directed by Markus Schleinzer, it approaches the world of criminal child abuse from the point of view of a high-functioning perpetrator—a thirtysomething insurance broker in an unnamed Austrian city, a man unremarkable in all ways except for the boy locked in his basement.
Michael reveals its horrors slowly, with slice-of-life realism. The first hint of trouble comes when Michael, who resembles a nerdy supporting player on The Office, visits his pristine basement and hoists open a vaultlike door, the inside of which is lined with professional-grade soundproofing; the fluffy foam cones send a chill down your spine. Soon we meet Michael's captive: the 10-year-old Wolfgang, who's brought up from the basement in the evening for a sit-down dinner and, if he's lucky, some TV. At evening's end, he's returned to the intricately padlocked basement, where he receives nighttime visits from his captor.
Mercifully and masterfully, Michael's crimes are kept elliptical. In one scene, he enters the basement vault and locks the door from the inside; in the next, he's placidly washing his genitals in the upstairs sink. It's riveting and horrifying, with even the most mundane moments shot through with tension: Once we know what Michael is capable of, every move he makes becomes a threat. In one mind-bending scene, Michael cares for a sick Wolfgang, with his tenderness softening your heart until you realize that helping a child regain his health in order to continue raping him is an unimaginably twisted act of evil. A similar slow shock is evoked by scenes of Michael's unremarkable dealings with relatives and coworkers; his comportment is terrifying.
As the monstrous lead, actor Michael Fuith gives the audience much of what we need to keep from recoiling from Michael in disgust. Something in his sad, dead eyes, in the roteness of his deeds, communicates the perpetuation of a cycle of abuse. Michael didn't invent child rape and imprisonment, and we can only imagine he learned about such things in the worst way possible. Paired with the film's humane editing, Fuith's performance keeps Michael from tipping into exploitation.
To tell too much more of the plot would do viewers a disservice. Suffice it to say that the mundane daily doings of Wolfgang's imprisonment are upset by surprise blasts of action—one plot-thickening, one game-changing—and that it all ends, believe it or not, on a note of hope.