Markus Schleinzer about  MICHAEL


«In my opinion a society's development is defined by the extent it's capable of dealing with its perpretrators.» Markus Schleinzer on his debute feature Michael that competes for the Palme d'or 2011.

In the past few years some unbelievably horrible things have come out of Austria’s basements and into the public eye. Did these events inspire you to make a profound reflection about (Austrian) society? What questions did you ask yourself?
Markus Schleinzer: I would prefer to broaden that. This isn’t a specifically Austrian theme, there have been similar cases in Belgium, France, America and Australia. These stories moved me tremendously, and what interests and unsettles me most about them was the extent to which people were prepared to follow the tabloids in their shock. I was also surprised by the fact that no one outside the mass media, the tabloid press in particular, addressed the topic. In the course of research I found solely one text by Elfriede Jelinek about the Fritzl case.I was searching for a theme for my first screenplay and had already outlined three stories. These drafts were then introduced to a working group that I formed years ago with two actor friends. The most interesting, heated and controversial discussions involved Michael. After that I wanted to take a closer look at it for myself, and the first screenplay draft was finished in four days. I was captivated by this story from that point on.

Did you think these events were exploited excessively by the media while being the focus of too little reflection by artists and intellectuals? Can MICHAEL be regarded as something like a counter-statement to the hysteria of the media, which pounced on the sensation without asking any kind of questions?
Markus Schleinzer: From my point of view, saying that this film is a counter-reaction would be dangerous. It’s a different view, a different position, one I think is missing from the way these events are being dealt with. I faced the question of what I want to say, and then how I can tell a story like this. I soon decided to tell it from the perpetrator’s point of view. I had too many qualms that the victim aspect would feed voyeurism too much. Deciding to tell the story from the perpetrator’s point of view excluded all external input, all moralizing commentary. As a screenwriter and director I’m neither an expert on this subject nor do I know a great deal about it, so I can’t take the audience by the hand and lead it through his point of view, and I can’t impose my opinion or moral attitude on certain matters either. That was kept out intentionally.

Was the writing determined to a great extent by a reduction process? Did you make an effort to extract the skeleton from what we know from the media’s descriptions of other cases?
Markus Schleinzer: I think that it was a mixture of a variety of things. I set up a case for myself, and it didn’t have anything in common with what was known from the media, and I didn’t do any research. I invented a perpetrator who was searching. Michael’s an individual who obviously isn’t able to find a partner for a relationship in a conventional way, and for that reason he picks up a delicate little plant on the street and cultivates it in his basement. A Pygmalion disorder. What goes through the mind of somebody like that? Things similar to what the rest of us think, people who don’t want to be alone and look for relationships? He’s looking for someone he can project all his needs and emotions onto, the same as the rest of us in our relationships. I soon realized that this situation is normal for Michael. He has to experience it as normal, otherwise he’d recognize the insanity and criminality behind it, and he’d stop or kill himself or not do it. These people live their lives as if they were remote controlled in an artificial idyll they have to create for themselves. For that reason it’s logical to talk almost exclusively about this normality Michael’s attempting to create, which conceals the crime it’s based on. When we see this criminal superstructure along with everything else, it’s frightening, of course. Michael can’t see it that way, for him it’s desire and what he longs for, he thinks that he has reached his goal.

In every aspect of his life?how he works, how he lives, how he dresses? Michael embodies the absolute average, and at the same time he fits the profile of a criminal. You said that you didn’t do much research, but did you make use of the expert opinion of a psychologist in creating your main character?
Markus Schleinzer: It was extremely important to me that he embody this averageness. It was also important to create a figure that a lot of people can see themselves in. If Michael had some kind of external characteristic, if his behavior were too bizarre, my way of looking at him wouldn’t work, and it wouldn’t have been able to create a painful presentation through unavoidable identification with the character. The moment he becomes obviously different from how I might see myself or the people I know, a protective shield is created. That’s the same protective shield the press uses when it discusses the “Monster of Amstetten.” That makes it possible for someone to say, “That’s not me.” I wrote the screenplay in a way I thought people could behave. Then it was submitted to sources of subsidies, and approval for financing was given right away. I wanted to have an expert’s opinion at that point. I then chanced upon court psychiatrist Dr. Heidi Kastner, who seemed extremely profound and to have a lot of integrity in the shows she appeared in. I sent her the screenplay with the request to treat it like a person she had to visit in prison. I was extremely nervous, being afraid that right when the money for the film arrived, someone would say my screenplay’s totally unbelievable. But she was very encouraging, there were just a few minor nuances where we disagreed, where the expert tended to doubt the probability of the behavior, while as a director I thought it was interesting as a story. Now we’re both convinced of the figure’s correctness and the path he takes.

Why did you leave out all other aspects, such as the boy’s parents and media reports? Why do you stick with the kidnapper exclusively?
Markus Schleinzer: Because individual details make avoidance extremely easy. Information that’s supposedly important turns out not to be information after all, opening up a cosmos you might prefer to deal with rather than the essentials. I was interested in the closed space, and that’s why I chose a time period for the story where the boy had already been living with him for a while, the initial horror had settled, and a supposedly normal life together had begun. At this point you can show various forms of normality: both the normality of the perpetrator who created a situation because he wants things that way and the so-called “normality of the victim” who has to come to terms with the situation because he or she wants to survive. When the perpetrator says to the victim, “The garbage is full, please take it out,” matters begin to become settled and a strange kind of normality begins for the victim.

A striking element of MICHAEL is the speechlessness, the silence between people and their indifference to one another. This seems to be part of the film’s content, and also its form. Do you agree?
Markus Schleinzer: I believe that involves the specific kind of thinking. These people, who are deaf in a way?they have to be, otherwise they wouldn’t permit a situation like this to go on for such a long time?are imploding. That’s part of their essence, they’re extremely quiet people, but their silence represents an void. This is why these events confront us like a wall, because not only does all comprehension come to an end here, all forms of communication cease also. What can you say to a person like that? Maybe that’s why we take the side of the “monster” label so eagerly, because the entire situation makes us face a kind of speechlessness.

But this also involves the fact that such things happen without the environment noticing or wanting to notice. The film also poses a question concerning what kind of society we’re living in. How much indifference are we dealing with here?
Markus Schleinzer: Yes. What kind of society are we living in? At the same time I think it’s important for people to confront themselves with that. In my opinion a society’s development is defined by the extent it’s capable of dealing with its perpetrators. You don’t necessarily have to reach a certain point, because that’s not possible sometimes. But the important thing is facing these incidents directly and permitting that to happen. That doesn’t mean I approve of it.

From idea to realization this project was developed extremely quickly. You normally hear about projects being stuck in story development or other stages for years.
Markus Schleinzer: No, I’m not familiar with that. In that case I’d be worried that things wouldn’t interest me as much anymore, that I’d be forced to share them with others. I wrote the first draft in four or five days, then I put it down and took another look after two or three months, improved some things, took others out. Then the subsidy money arrived soon after that, and production and shooting went extremely quickly. Everything happened within the last year and a half. In January 2010 I worked on my last film as a casting director and then dove into this project.

Didn’t you ever consider the possibility of directing before this?
Markus Schleinzer: Of course. That was the expectation. People were constantly telling me that I should make my own film. What decided things was production of The White Ribbon, where I cast the children and coached them on the set. Michael Haneke said, “Now you have to finally get around to making your own film. I want to read a screenplay in three months.” He remembered that, the old fox, and kept reminding me. If he hadn’t given me this kick in the behind I probably would’ve spent a few more years in my comfortable life in the second row, and said to myself at some point, I’m old now, it’d be silly at this point, forget about it, and I would have been satisfied.

What was the transition from casting to directing like?
Markus Schleinzer: The transition wasn’t so stark for me. I’ve always done extremely concrete work on productions, the processes involved are familiar to me, and actually, casting and the staging aspect of directing are not that different. Casting should always revolve around quickly producing a result with a text and an actor so that others buy it. With casting the director’s the buyer, with a film it’s the audience. Seventeen years of experience with casting was extremely good training, because I didn’t do anything other than direct actors in front of a camera every day, and these years of experience also gave me the opportunity to see some really good people working in Austrian film that I was happy to have in my team, and with whom I felt well taken care of.

In spite of 17 years of casting experience it probably required special care to find a child for this role, and to guide a child through it.
Markus Schleinzer: It required three things. First finding parents who would agree to exposing their child to this kind of story, second finding a child with the talent necessary for playing this character with the ambivalence I wanted, and third finding a child who’s so firmly anchored that he wouldn’t be damaged by this film and exposure to this material. That’s why I was extremely happy to find this boy. David’s a great person, and he’s already an artist in my opinion. Together with David’s parents I found a method, and a language, for introducing the boy to the story. You can tell the truth while being careful about your choice of words. I wanted to be able to sleep well before shooting, and also during shooting and afterward.

You’ve worked with Michael Haneke many times and have observed him working on his films. Did he influence you in your work as a director?
Markus Schleinzer: I couldn’t say. I don’t know. Possibly. I’m self-taught and haven’t spent a day at a film school where you could learn the basics of film history. My film-watching habits are limited to television during my childhood and what I was able to see at Austrian cinemas. The reaction to Michael after the initial screenings in France was that it resembles Bresson. No idea if that’s true, I’ve never seen any of Bresson’s films. In any case I’m extremely grateful to Michael Haneke because he made me part of his film family over a decade ago and has always had a great deal of trust in me. It has turned into a great love. Since I’ve always played an active role while working with him, those were the films I participated in most. Because of the casting process I was involved in production at an early stage, and was often on set for most of the shooting and heard the discussions. But I wouldn’t overrate that. To any charge of being an amateur I would have to boldly say that there’s probably more Markus Schleinzer in a Haneke film than vice versa?I’ve done a lot more work for him than he has for me. But I don’t think that the film, the way I made it, is part of a brand or indicative of what my next films will be like. I chose this kind of story for Michael because this theme seems immanent and right to me.

In other words, MICHAEL  isn’t a one-time directing effort? There seem to be other ideas ready for more film projects.
Markus Schleinzer: Right now, since we’re in competition at Cannes, the distance from director back to casting director is greater than it was before. There are other projects under consideration. At the moment I have too much going on in the present to do anything concrete, I think I have to get some of the present out of my head to make room for the future.


Interview: Karin Schiefer
Mai 2011