In his film debut entitled "Michael," Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer tells the tale of the abduction of a child from the perspective of the pedophile perpetrator.
They were media events par excellence, which thousands of journalists from around the world tried to convey: Natascha Kampusch's abduction and the incest story involving Josef Fritzl, both in Austria. But journalists couldn't really explain the inconceivable stories, in which basement rooms were used to imprison and rape young girls and children for years, without neighbors, authorities or acquaintances even noticing.
Austrian Markus Schleinzer, a long-time casting director, chose characters for Oscar-winning films such as "The Counterfeiters" and "The White Ribbon." But the cases involving Kampusch, who was kidnapped at the age of 10 and held captive for over eight years before escaping in 2006, and Fritzl, who held his daughter prisoner for 24 years until 2008, raping her and conceiving seven children with her, preoccupied Schleinzer so much that he decided to make a film on the topic.
"Michael," the name of the movie, was nominated last year for the European Film Award and just won the Max Ophüls Award at the Saarbrücken Film Festival, where Michael Fuith - who plays the leading role - also received the Best Actor award. "Michael" opens in German theaters on January 26. Deutsche Welle spoke with director Markus Schleinzer and actor Michael Fuith.
Deutsche Welle: You have been casting director for some 60 different films. That you were interested in making your own movie is understandable. But why did you choose such a tough topic for your debut film?
Markus Schleinzer: At the end of 2008, I was seriously considering making my first movie and I asked myself: What are the topics you're really interested in? What's happening right now? Then I worked out three different story ideas and presented them to a few friends. The story that caused the most intense debates was "Michael." After that, there was no doubt about it for me, especially because the topic is so omnipresent. 2008 was the year of Madeleine McCann, the little girl who disappeared in Portugal. By then, in Austria, the public has distanced itself from Natascha Kampusch because she wasn't willing to depict her kidnapper as a monster in the way the media had.
I was surprised that so-called "high culture" wasn't willing to take a different approach from the tabloids, which are not interested in content but in selling more papers. But I also have to admit that I was also part of this voyeuristic society, and followed all this horrible news. So I thought, how could one report on this topic differently?
How did producers and film sponsors respond to your movie idea?
Austria does not spend a lot of money on filmmaking. Many filmmakers have to vie for a share of the pie. And people always want to make sure they are on the safe side. The question that people always asked was, okay, but are we really allowed to do that? But that wasn't a question for me. For me, the question was, should one do it? And there was a clear answer to that. So, we got the money right off the bat, hands down. It amazed me how easy it was to get funding for this film.
You say that Natascha Kampusch was one of many missing children. In Germany, some 1,800 are considered permanently missing. That is what prompted you to make your film. How did you go about doing your research to create a profile for such a perpetrator?
I did not allow myself to do any research. I had, of course, read and seen a lot in the media. But I didn't want to end up finding something that was so interesting or fascinating that I would end up using it or abusing it to "make art." The stories of real suffering belong to the victims. They can decide what they want to do with them. Do they want to flood the publishing world with them? Do they want to process it all with experts?
For the film, I created a main character who - and this is perhaps the shocking thing - wants what most of us want: He wants a relationship, wants to be happy, wants to experience love. That's what it's all about - even with this disposition. But what's it like being a pedophile? When do you realize that about yourself? Probably in the late years of puberty, when you see that the people you are attracted to stay the same age, even as you get older.
Then the questions start coming from aunts and grandmothers: 'When are you bringing home your girlfriend?' That must be horrible. Then many, many lonely years. Then he gets a house, and all these coincidences and this disposition come together in a very unfortunate alliance.
But not every pedophile is a criminal. Pedophilia is only the disposition. There are people who do not act on that, but instead, seek out help or discuss it publicly. It becomes criminal when one indulges those inclinations. For them, it's then about how to organize their life, and create as "normal" an everyday life as possible. And there's nothing better for covering up crime than normality.
You use the camera in such a way as to make the images appear rigid or frozen. Did the subject matter inspire that, or is that perhaps a product of the Vienna film genre? After all, one sees similar use of the camera in films by Austrian Ulrich Seidel…
A lot of people feel that way. But two-thirds of the filming was done with a hand-held camera. I think this apparent fixed feeling of the camera has more to do with the very slow narrative style. We edited only a few scenes. I come from the casting world. People and actors are my occupation and my passion. I think there's nothing more beautiful than watching people who can develop something over a period of time. Purely from their own talent, and not because something is underscored with dramatic or emotional film music, or through various camera positions or effects. Providing distance and maintaining a sense of calm have been important to me from the start.
The film opened in Austria in September. How were the reactions?
Very good, and I'm quite happy about that. I don't think Austria could have really afforded pushing these things to the side anymore. It was almost bizarre. Every time I had an important appointment for this film, some scandal broke out - either the stories of abuse in the Catholic Church, or a horrible crime from the 60s was brought to light, one in which an orphanage in Vienna was run like a brothel. That case is now being clarified. I was almost embarrassed by it all, because it seemed like some advertising campaign was going on.
Michael Fuith, actors typically scramble to play unusual characters. But how was it for you with this film?
Michael Fuith: At first, of course, I didn't want to play the part. But when I read the script, I realized that this was the only real, intelligent way of addressing the topic. What I really liked was that the screenplay did not rely on effects that would more or less exploit the victims.
What I noticed doing my research was the general silence of everyone - the silence on the part of the perpetrators, the victims, the family members. Therapists and psychologists have great difficulty in helping out because few people are willing to talk, which creates a kind of wall of protection around the perpetrators. That irritated me.
Then I decided I wanted to give a face to it all - so that people can talk about it, not just find it in the tabloids and the headlines. So that people become aware enough about it to talk about it. So, I just bit the bullet and said, Okay, I want to do it!
Interview: Bernd Sobolla / als
Editor: Kate Bowen