DIR/WRI: Karl Markovics • PRO: Dieter Pochlatko, Nikolaus Wisiak • DOP: Martin Gschlacht • ED: Alarich Lenz • Cast: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Georg Friedrich
Karl Markovics, who may be known to audiences as the star of the 2007 film The Counterfeiters, has turned his hand to writing and directing with his debut, Breathing. It tells the story of Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), a young prisoner in an Austrian juvenile facility who is allowed to join the workforce while waiting for his parole hearing. After having a freak-out a few seconds into his welding job, the emotionally distant young man eventually settles into life as a mortuary worker. He has to deal with the elevating tension with his new co-workers, as well as his slowly unravelling history.
Breathing is the kind of film where you might wonder throughout if any of its mysteries will actually be revealed. It thankfully has very little functional expository dialogue, and is very well paced. The story jumps right into Roman’s life, firmly in the present tense, and it does not lazily reveal its back story, which is one of the main reasons that the film is so gripping. The focus is purely on Roman’s development, and doesn’t adhere to any conventions common to prison/borstal films. Apart from one minor scuffle, life is pretty sterile and quiet for Roman in the prison.
Schubert is required to be emotionally distant and moody for the majority of the film, and I really didn’t know if I should be rooting for him or not, as so little of his back story is revealed. There is enough character in his face so that his few emotions kept me interested, but this is where the film may lose or capture an audience. As he settles into his new life, he comes out of his shell, and it’s pretty hard not to feel for the kid. I must admit that I was moved to tears as the film progressed, which is something that rarely happens to me in a theatre.
Markovics uses the film’s slow pace to his advantage, as it allows him to steep us in little details that immerse us in the daily grind of Roman’s life. We are aware of his breakfast routine, his commute, his daily return to prison with its inevitable strip search, and his few hours of recreation before bed. Breathing may also have the best representation of the uncertainty and anxiety brought on by the first day of a new job that I’ve ever seen. Much time is devoted to this first day, and his understandable cluelessness is quite endearing. He is slowly introduced to the practical side of caring for the dead immediately after their passing. Initially just an onlooker gaining work experience, he soon has to get hands on with dead bodies, though we quickly learn that this may not be his first time handling a corpse. The extended takes of loading a body onto a gurney, or the washing and dressing of an elderly deceased woman are uncomfortable to witness, but are poignant and treated with immense respect. The emphasis on routine is a cleverly employed structuring device, and any deviations are jarring and carry greater importance as a result.
Breathing treats its subject matter with great respect, and is produced with great confidence. I’m very interested to see where Markovics goes from here, as he has shown such maturity and emotional awareness with his debut. He has crafted a thought provoking, slow-burning drama that will keep you questioning throughout. It has been a surprising highlight of 2012 so far, and I encourage you to immerse yourself in the world of Roman Kogler.
Kieran O Leary
Breathing is released on 20th April 2012