Review: Breathing (Atmen)

Actor Karl Markovics’ debut as both writer and director is an elegant, purposefully crafted portrait of death and life, through a dive into the world of juvenile delinquent Roman Kogler. Set in Vienna, this is no tourist trip, and we catch only the barest glimpse of the city’s famed architecture, the top of the Riesenrad unobserved by characters who are simply getting on with the daily grind.

Shunted from orphanage to children’s home, home to juvenile detention, protagonist Roman has never really known life ‘on the outside’. A crime, the details of which we only gradually discover, committed at the age of 14, has made the possibility of a normal life increasingly remote. The chance of a job at the morgue, however, offers him the chance to prove himself. As the surly, silent teen, Thomas Schubert reveals as much in his silences as in his monosyllabic exchanges with probation officers, colleagues and his estranged mother. His evident discomfort at the sight of the corpses hints at the details of his conviction, but also reveal an innocence buried under the layers of bravado. The ‘breathing’ of the title is most pertinent in these scenes, where you cannot help but dwell on the collision of life and death, the impossible complexity of both staying alive and dealing with death when it comes.

That Roman is up against not only the circumstance of his birth and his past actions, but the flat refusal of the authorities to help even with practical matters (let alone emotional ones), is abundantly evident from the start. His probation officer tries to aid what he clearly thinks is a hopeless case, and the prison staff, while casually friendly about the everyday routine, are ill-equipped to support their inmates emotionally. Little thought seems to be given to why Roman is in such a bad situation, a note which permeates throughout the film. A subdued grey palette, broken by the occasional flash of a yellow underground train or the foggy green Austrian countryside, and a wonderfully understated central performance give Breathing its unassuming air, quietly critical of the adults whose care has left so much to be desired.

Markovics (perhaps best known for his performance in 2007’s Die Fälscher/The Counterfeiters) has an impressively steady hand, slowly untangling several threads and developing characters that initially seem immovably set in their ways. The progression is gradual, and there is no weepy moment of ultimate triumph in the face of adversity. There is a bleak glimmer of hope, however, and Roman grabs it with both hands. The first shots of the film show a car driving towards him, picking him up from another failed attempt at integration with the working world, taking him back to the monotony and hopelessness of the detention centre. The closing frames also follow a moving vehicle, this time travelling away from us, with Roman inside, headed if not to better things then at the very least to some stability and a taste of life outside institutionalisation. The ending recalls the beginning, but shows us the gulf Roman has crossed, suggesting movement towards something like a life worth living. An impressive, thoughtful rumination on life, death and the breathing that happens in between.

Harriet Cash

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