What is it about Austrians and their cellars? First we were shocked by the case of Natascha Kampusch, who was abducted off the street at age 10 and kept in a cellar for eight years before finally escaping. But that was just a foretast of the horror to come. In 2008 the world learned about Josef Fritzl, who kept his own daughter captive in the cellar of his house and fathered seven children with her. Referring to the Fritzl case, Elfriede Jelinek wrote:
Österreich ist eine kleine Welt, in der die große ihre Probe hält. Im noch viel kleineren Kellerverlies von Amstetten findet die Aufführung statt, täglich, nächtlich. Es fällt keine Aufführung wegen irgendetwas aus. (aus "Im Verlassenen")
(‘Austria is a small world in which the big world holds its rehearsal. The performance takes place in the very much smaller cellar dungeon in Amstetten – daily, nightly. No performance is ever missed … Performances are all there can ever be.’)
In his 2011 film Michael, (available now in the US on DVD) director Markus Schleinzer takes us down into the cellar of one perfectly average Austrian house to watch the daily and nightly horror performance. Hollywood spends up to $100 million to produce the average blockbuster horror movie, but Michael is ten times more bone chilling than anything from Hollywood - at a budget of under $1 million.
What is so horrifying is that everything on the surface seems perfectly normal. Michael, the main character ( brilliantly played by Michael Fuith) is seen coming home from his hum-drum job at an insurance company with his sack of groceries. He casually cooks dinner while watching television and then opens the locked cellar door to let in a boy of about ten years - Wolfgang - who is told to set the table. The two eat dinner together, the boy is allowed to watch a bit of television, and then is sent back down into the cellar. The next morning Michael rapes the boy before heading off to work. That is the routine - daily, nightly. No performance is ever missed (Jelinek). We don't know how long this routine has been going on, but it must be for years. Wolfgang writes letters to his lost family which are intercepted by Michael and neatly filed. We see a large stack of them.
Michael is able to function normally at his office job, and even receives a promotion. It seems like the routine will go on forever with Wolfgang in the cellar, but things began to unravel when the boy becomes ill. Michael diecides Wolfgang needs a companion - or perhaps he's getting too old for Michael's taste? In a terrifying scene he nearly succeeds in abducting a young boy at a video arcade, It all seems so easy and perfectly normal.
Schleinzer does a masterful job of building suspense, so by the final, incredibly chilling, scene I nearly yelling at the screen. I can't think of another film that so perfectly captures the banality of evil.
Michael is just one of several terrific recent films from Austrian directors. Both Benjamin Heisenberg's 2010 film Der Räuber and especially Götz Spielmann's 2008 film Revanche are must-see's for anyone interested in current film. Sadly, these films received little or no notice when they were finally shown on American screens.