Breathing is the superb writing and directing debut of Karl Markovics, the well known Austrian stage and screen actor who starred in the 2008 Best Foreign Oscar winner, The Counterfeiters. This is a coming-of-age story that's also all about breaking out of bondage. Its protagonist, Roman Kogler (a gradually more and more sympathetic Thomas Schubert) is in a juvenile prison outside Vienna, and is seeking parole after serving half his sentence. It obviously is not a short one. Later on we learn what his crime was. But Roman has never known anything but institutions. He went directly from an orphanage to here. And his way of winning the confidence of a judge is by making it as an employee in the municipal mortuary, where he is given a uniform, including shoes. In between hard days learning to deal with corpses, the youth swims laps in the prison pool, pool workouts a coming-of-age routine as in the recent Welcome and the earlier Gaspard Ulliel vehicle The Last Day. The film is full of rituals -- the laps, the body searches by a guard on return from work, the commute train, the mortuary uniforms, the time cards. Through all of this Roman is alone. He is in a solitary cell, he talks little and unwillingly to his patient but harried parole officer (Gerhard Liebmann). Working closely with his cinematographer, Martin Gschlacht, Markovics weaves all this into a mesmerizing whole, in which the few words spoken, rules broken, and schedules overridden are riveting -- important steps toward Roman's establishing an identity for himself and gaining his own respect. The film may seem grim, but it's positive, and it's ultimately quite beautiful. Its grayness can't hide its artistic perfection and its emotional truth.
"Breathing" is a theme throughout, symbolic of both entrapment and freedom: it happens under water when Roman swims his laps in the prison pool. It's done a special way when around corpses that may stink. It might have ended, as the boy's mother Margit Kogler (Karin Lischka) reveals when he finds her. (At the job he sees the naked corpse of a woman with his name and he thinks it may be his mother. But he locates the right mother and follows her into an Ikea store, where they meet.)
With his institutional life, Roman must find any escape from ritual exciting. Drinking a (forbidden) can of beer on the city commute train with an American girl is a huge thrill. So must be following his mother, who does not know him, into the store. He has never seen a corpse. But has he ever gone shopping? Ha he ever been kissed? We as viewers gain pleasure from learning the processes of the mortuary employees, which are precisely observed, as are the in-and-out prison routines. But for Roman his life is all about finding a place to breathe.
Breathing is a small, tightly woven film. It's largely wordless, and the sparse dialogue assumes greater life for this minimalism. What the American girl says on the train is comically simple ("You-going-where?") but must be outlandishly fresh for Roman. Roman hasn't much to say to the harried juvenile officer in charge of his case (Gerhard Liebmann), or to the older co-workers at the mortuary and they haven't much to say to him, but the little changes in tone as he learns the ropes and becomes more positive are big on screen. This is a simple tale, but Markovics makes every minute count. Gschlacht conveys a symmetry and lyrical beauty with the bleak settings through which he follows Roman, car, bus, train, mortuary truck, hearse. A big travel poster in a subway station is strongly used, and so is the pulling away of the train that leaves someone, importantly, still on the station bench. Breathing breaks out of its almost clinical style by making Roman Kogler's tough tests and cruel world humanize rather than harden him. Markovics avoids either a saccharine happy ending or a miserablist dark tunnel.
Breathing/Atmen won the Directors' Fortnight prize for European film at Cannes and was included in 14 other international festivals, where it won two other awards. It has had theatrical release in Austria, Germany, in France March 14, 2012 (critically very well received there: Allociné 3.5), and will be released in April in the UK April 20. It was screened for this review in previews for the MoMA-Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films series. It opened in New York August 31, 2012.
©Chris Knipp 2012