«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 Austrias 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 isnt 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. Its 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 perpetrators point
of view. I had too many qualms that the victim aspect would feed voyeurism too much. Deciding to tell the story from the perpetrators
point of view excluded all external input, all moralizing commentary. As a screenwriter and director Im neither an expert
on this subject nor do I know a great deal about it, so I cant take the audience by the hand and lead it through his
point of view, and I cant 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 medias 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 didnt have
anything in common with what was known from the media, and I didnt do any research. I invented a perpetrator who was
searching. Michaels an individual who obviously isnt 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 dont
want to be alone and look for relationships? Hes 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 hed recognize the insanity and criminality behind it, and hed 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 its logical to talk almost exclusively about this normality Michaels attempting to
create, which conceals the crime its based on. When we see this criminal superstructure along with everything else,
its frightening, of course. Michael cant see it that way, for him its 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 didnt 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 wouldnt work, and it wouldnt 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. Thats the same protective shield the press uses when it discusses
the Monster of Amstetten. That makes it possible for someone to say, Thats 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 experts 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 screenplays 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 were both convinced of the figures correctness
and the path he takes.
Why did you leave out all other aspects, such as the boys parents and media reports? Why do you stick with the kidnapper
Markus Schleinzer: Because individual details make avoidance extremely easy. Information thats 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 thats 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 films 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 wouldnt permit a situation like this to go on for such a long time?are imploding. Thats part
of their essence, theyre 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 thats 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 were 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 its important for people to
confront themselves with that. In my opinion a societys development is defined by the extent its capable of dealing
with its perpetrators. You dont necessarily have to reach a certain point, because thats not possible sometimes.
But the important thing is facing these incidents directly and permitting that to happen. That doesnt mean I approve
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, Im not familiar with that. In that case Id be worried that things wouldnt interest
me as much anymore, that Id 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.
Didnt 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 hadnt given me this kick in the behind I probably wouldve
spent a few more years in my comfortable life in the second row, and said to myself at some point, Im old now, itd
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 wasnt so stark for me. Ive 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 directors the buyer, with a film its the audience. Seventeen years of experience with casting was extremely
good training, because I didnt 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 whos so firmly anchored that he wouldnt be damaged by this film and exposure to this material.
Thats why I was extremely happy to find this boy. Davids a great person, and hes already an artist in my
opinion. Together with Davids 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.
Youve 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 couldnt say. I dont know. Possibly. Im self-taught and havent 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 thats true, Ive never seen any of Bressons films. In any case Im
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 Ive 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 wouldnt overrate that. To any charge
of being an amateur I would have to boldly say that theres probably more Markus Schleinzer in a Haneke film than vice
versa?Ive done a lot more work for him than he has for me. But I dont 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 isnt a one-time directing effort? There seem to be other ideas ready for more film projects.
Markus Schleinzer: Right now, since were 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