Breathing (Atmen)

Austria (2011) Dir. Karl Markovics

18 year-old Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert) has spent all his life in orphanages and following the death of another teenager is now in a juvenile detention centre. As a result he is sullen, insular and uncommunicative and is unable to keep a job, an essential requirement to create a positive impression at his upcoming parole hearing. Roman ends up working at a morgue which begins as awkward as his previous jobs until a victim with the same name is brought in to the morgue, prompting Roman to search for his mother.

This slightly arthousey film comes from Karl Markovics, the actor best known for his lead role in the excellent The Counterfeiters, who delivers an assured and thoughtful debut with a low key approach to a difficult subject shows a maturity some directors take years to develop. There are various issues explored here – isolation, abandonment, trust, redemption and relationships, from Roman getting along with his co-workers at the morgue to trying to establish a dialogue with his estranged mother Margit (Karin Lischka).

Roman’s insolence won’t win him any fans early on; he is your typical stroppy teenager who wants to march to the beat of his own drum, a rather difficult ambition due his incarceration and the stringent rules and routines he needs to observe at all times. Whenever he returns from a day out he has to undress a for a quick “cough and drop” check up from too equally surly guards. Roman’s social workers find themselves at their wits end from his brusque behaviour and indifferent attitude towards his future, despite the parole hearing looming. The only refuge he has is swimming which he gets to enjoy on his own as everyone else in the detention centre won’t go near a murderer.

The morgue job seems like a last resort and true to form Roman does little to ingratiate himself to his potential employer, turning up late on the first day and remaining as monosyllabic as ever. Roman’s immediate co-workers won’t have a bar of his attitude and show contempt for the fact he is a convicted murder. The usual teasing ensues until the body of a woman is brought into the morgue with the surname Kogler, immediately making Roman wonder if this was his mother. Rocked by this Roman begins a search for the woman who abandoned him as a baby, eventually tracking her down in one the more unusual mother/son reunions in cinema.

Over the course of the film we see Roman start to change, his daily excursions to the outside world gradually forcing him to open up and meeting the world head on. A scuffle with his co-worker in which Roman took the rap for knocks a few bricks out of the wall surrounding him, while sharing a train carriage and a beer with an attractive female tourist may have got him in trouble with the detention centre, but saw him take a few more steps towards integrating more comfortably within society. Roman’s exponential growth from murderous yob to hard working citizen is not rushed despite the 90 minute running time, allowing his character to remain credible and believable. There is no cheesy smiling or sudden sentimental discoveries of a human side within the interred thug to mark his reform – the shifts are subtle and nuanced, making the boy literally mature before our eyes.   

Aside from his mother, the supporting characters in this tale are rather anonymous yet each one plays a pivotal part in Roman’s growth, be it a directly or indirectly. The main catalyst however appears to be the confrontation with the dead on a daily basis, exposing Roman to the finality of our mortal journey, putting the gravity of his crime into a fresh perspective. In his debut, Thomas Schubert masterfully embodies every aspect of his troubled character with a performance that belies his rookie status, which is as much a testament to him as it is to the skilled direction of Karl Markovics, whose understanding of the art is eminently on display here.

Breathing is a stark but contemplative film, rich in subtlety and restraint with a strong emotional evocation and poignancy, sparing the viewer any moralising on the main character’s road to redemption. A stunning debut and a satisfying taster of the greatest that is hopefully to come from both actor and director.