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Originally published Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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Movie review

'Michael': Artful pedophile tale captures two brave performances

A movie review of "Michael," a difficult-to-watch film about a pedophile (played by Michael Fuith) keeping a young boy (David Rauchenberger) prisoner in his basement. It has an engrossing deliberateness that speaks to the psychology of captor and captive.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Michael,' with Michael Fuith, David Rauchenberger, Christine Kain. Written and directed by Markus Schleinzer. 98 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In German, with English subtitles. SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.

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When evil is banal, and banality becomes a norm, then evil becomes numbingly routine. That's the most horrifying aspect of "Michael," a strange and agonizingly engrossing drama despite its repellent subject.

Actor Michael Fuith can only be described as courageous for his carefully modulated performance as the titular psychopath and pedophile in this chilly Austrian film, which loosely recalls the real-life ordeal of Natascha Kampusch, held captive for about eight years in a basement in a Viennese suburb.

Equally brave is Fuith's co-star, young David Rauchenberger, as Wolfgang, a little boy kept sealed in a basement room in Michael's house and sexually abused on an almost-daily basis.

While it's very clear from writer-director Markus Schleinzer's careful approach to shooting scenes that Rauchenberger never was exposed to any actual harm, a viewer's imagination is less protected.

It takes a long time to learn the real nature of Michael and Wolfgang's connection — we don't know whether they're relatives, guardian and ward, strangers, etc., until quite late — in a way that doesn't matter. Schleinzer's focus is on the anesthetizing rituals of the characters' daily life together: the hostage's compliance with the captor's insistence on tidiness, dinners together at a well-set table, the sound of that basement door shut and barred each night.

Even episodes of sexual abuse become part of the deliberate pace of this insular world, with its illusion of controlled chaos easily undone by anything genuinely random. Schleinzer's terrible success is that he makes us get it: the way the spark of life and survival — which occasionally flicker in Wolfgang — can be dulled by the fog of another's absolute control.

Schleinzer, in his filmmaking debut, looks like a talent to watch. The energy in "Michael" is so artfully compressed that the simple opening of a door becomes a pivotal moment in fate and history.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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