sat 15/06/2024

Breathing | reviews, news & interviews



Karl Markovics' powerful debut tells of a damaged teenager's redemptive hunt for identity

Karin Lischka and Thomas Schubert play estranged mother and son in 'Breathing'

This one sounds like a hard sell: a muted, taciturn, cautious film from Austria about a friendless boy in a young offenders’ institution who takes a job working for the municipal undertakers. Breathing (original title: Atmen) would appear at first glance modest in scope and gloomy in outlook. But whatever the odds stacked against it, this quiet, observational debut from Karl Markovics turns out to pack a discreetly powerful punch.

The name may not be familiar, but the face will be: a few years back Markovics was the poker-faced lead in The Counterfeiters, which won the best foreign film at the 2007 Academy Awards. For his first film as scriptwriter and director, he has kept a similarly tight rein on his emotions, but this time through his young main character Roman (Thomas Schubert, also making his debut). When we first meet him, Roman is being driven from his juvenile detention centre to an interview by a harassed probation officer at the end of his tether (Gerhard Liebmann). The job he’s up for is as a welder, but when someone unexpectedly jams protective headgear over his face, he reacts violently. Later we find out why in a brief flashback which also explains the cause of his detention: at 14 he murdered another boy in the orphanage which is the only home he has ever known.

Markovics’ performance behind the lens is as unshowy as his young star’s

Roman needs a job to avoid being moved into an adult prison. The advertisement he eventually responds to - we watch him flicking through the newspaper with his toes, as if he's fearful of grabbing life with both hands -  is with the city morgue. This morbid choice is much to the consternation of the probation officer who, although his life is evidently falling apart, seems to be the only person looking out for his young charge. In the volatile atmosphere of the detention centre Roman is a loner, while the guards nonchalantly look down on him (and, each time he comes and goes, through his every orifice). Indeed no one addresses Roman by anything but his surname, Kogler. Nor do there seem to be any potential alliances among his new colleagues, one of them paternalistic but distant (Stefan Matousch), the other (Georg Friedrich) nakedly unwelcoming at the arrival of a milk-faced recruit.

Roman takes hostility in his stride - the indifference of others is the world he knows - but soon he comes face to face with the corpse of a young woman who bears the same surname. All of a sudden his vulnerable nerve endings are exposed. This depilated lump of dead flesh, stitched stem to stern after an autopsy, could easily be the mother who gave him up for adoption. As he commutes on the train to and from work, he starts tentatively to hunt for his mother in the Viennese phonebook. When eventually he tracks down Margit, he finds a similarly lost woman in her early 30s (Karin Lischka) who advises him heatedly that giving him up was the best decision she ever made.

Breathing movingly crystallises into the story of an isolated young male building a sense of himself from a few miserable scraps. There’s a lovely vignette in which Roman coyly communicates through the language barrier with a flirty American girl on the train. At work he earns the trust of his tormentor (Friedrich and Schubert pictured) over the naked corpse of an old woman which must be tenderly prepared for burial while a relative howls in the hallway. Back at his detention centre he plunges himself underwater in the swimming pool like a child seeking refuge in a kind of amniotic sack.

Schubert lucidly says everything by saying almost nothing, and that also goes for the subtle fibres of the entire script, which doles out dialogue with extreme parsimony. This is a story told in images, in flinches and glances and withheld words, which chances on beauty in quiet corners. Markovics’ performance behind the lens is as unshowy as his young star’s. Perhaps there’s a symbolic flourish or two that the film really doesn’t need: Roman freeing a bird trapped in a metal coffin, a message graffitied on a wall (“Hell is other people”). There’s great support from Martin Gschlacht’s sparse cinematography which explores every shade of grey, and Alarich Lenz, who edits the narrative down to the bone. All but immaculate.

Watch the trailer for Breathing

Follow @JasperRees on Twitter


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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