Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), a 19-year-old ward of the state, lives in a detention centre after committing a serious crime five years earlier. An orphan seemingly without hope or purpose in life, Roman’s only chance to enter mainstream society rests on finding employment through the centre’s day release program. Roman’s opportunity arrives in the most unlikely of workplaces: the local morgue, where he takes on the position of assistant undertaker.
GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: Breathing (Atmen) is set in a Vienna that looks like death warmed up. All the colours have been timed so that, in this vision of contemporary German life, there exists no bright highlights. The weather outlook seems always to anticipate rain. All the actors have a zombified sickly pallor, like their blood has been clogged. The locations – working-class flats, generic food joints, endless highways, antiseptic train carriages, a correctional facility, a morgue – add to the overwhelming feeling of loss. It’s possible in a short review to only talk about the 'image’, but this is a film of such delicacy in sound design that it demands to be listened to with care. We hear the quiet of a room, and the sharp, discordant clamour of a street. I’ve rarely seen a film that better captures the unnerving 5am silence known to the early-starter everywhere. It is a film of very little talk. When people say something it is either a banal everyday utterance or a line of such devastating profundity it completely overturns the world of the characters completely.
perfect casting and acting
Still, given this frigid ambience, Breathing is not a depressing film, in the sense that it could be understood as a potentially miserable cinema experience. (Indeed for those whose minds run to such things, and I confess mine does, the title offers a considerable promise of hope, so from the start I was relieved of any ominous emotional burden.) I’m not just talking of its exquisite craft; it’s a film that breathes hope. And this from a picture that is not even on nodding terms with sentimentality.
The plot is simple. It is about a 18-year-old boy convicted of murder as a juvenile, who gets a day-release gig as an assistant in Vienna’s municipal morgue in order to bolster his chances of a parole. Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), who looks like a depressed choirboy, is friendless, recessive, diffident, fragile, given to sudden fits of rage. He turns people off. Prison has taught him to fear the future. Roman lives a shut-down existence. The movie is about how dealing with the dead every day pushes him into re-connecting with the living – and his own past. He starts off the film as a scary creepy kid, and in the end he’s opened up, healed a bit, no longer fearful of his own impulses.
It seems a neat premise, a writerly conceit and yet it works, and that’s because from the start we understand that Roman is all too aware of his own emotional and psychological dilemma. In its own way, this is a 'prison escape’ movie. But the threat doesn’t come from beatings and bullets, but the hero’s own sense of existential dread. What gives the film its optimistic buzz is that throughout, Roman is undertaking emotional risks of his own design conceived to heal his damaged personality. The morgue job was his idea; and, of course, it means confronting punters in the worst possible circumstances as well as lengthy journeys on public transport – a frightening prospect for a kid who has spent almost his entire adolescence incarcerated.
The film, which won the directors fortnight prize in Cannes in 2011, is the directorial debut of Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters), a famed veteran Austrian actor. He also wrote the script, which is steeped in the procedural details of, say, juvenile detention and the delicate business of attending to the dead.
This close attention to verisimilitude, the long takes, the lack of 'movie’ glamour and its reliance on real world locations – has compelled some critics to describe the film’s style as minimalist, observational and (mystifyingly) social realist. But I think Markovics’ project is much closer to, say, the subjective, immersive mise en scene of Scorsese than a Ken Loach-like 'statement’ on the way the structure of juvenile justice pulps and corrupts young souls. (Though, I should make it plain that there’s nothing explosive or operatic and Scorsese-like about the movie at all!)
Or to put it another way, Markovics style is about taking us deep inside the emotional disquiet of Roman, so we feel his pain and alienation. Unsurprisingly, images of entrapment abound. Breathing was shot by Martin Gschlacht in widescreen; but that great canvas diminishes Roman throughout in boxy, sterile frames that eloquently capture the kid’s sensitivity to a busy and unordered world of noise, space, and danger.
This review has dwelled lovingly on the film’s feel, because it’s so strong, making it sound like a mood piece but, in fact, that is a little misleading. One of the deep and satisfying pleasures of Breathing – aside from its perfect casting and acting – is Markovics’ way with narrative. In its own subdued mystique, this an expert melodrama and Markovics fearlessly uses such standard tropes as a long lost mother, belligerent bullying authority figures and even a chance encounter that has the fragrance of romance to give the film some energy and suspense. Of course, none of this stuff tips the film away from its disciplined study of a character emerging, as it were, from a kind of hibernation – indeed these subplots are used to chart Roman’s evolution (and it helps that Schubert, a non-actor, is brilliantly real and compelling throughout.)
Still, what I like best about Breathing are those exclusive moments that connect us directly with Roman’s psyche and experience, where we’re alone with him and see the world the way he does. Like when he’s alone swimming in the juvie detention pool, the blue and silence blocking out the other kids and the guards, or watching with an unseen and unabashed curiosity the quirky manners of some strangers on a train. Soulful, decent, these moments have a fragile innocence that is truly moving, because we can see the fear begin to slip away from Roman’s eyes, and in its place, is a new promise that has something to do with taking the world as it comes.