Get intimate with death and realize life. This is the simple but profound notion that fuels the quiet drama of Atmen (Breathing). In the debut feature film both written and directed by the actor Karl Markovics, 18-year-old Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert) finds a way to renew his life by taking a job as an undertaker. Though a teenager, Roman is coming up from a long way down and will have a long way to go by the time the curtains close on this intimate drama from Austria. Markovics does not sentimentalize coming-of-age but only reveals a load of baggage that illuminates the difficulties of growing up. With the film’s matter-of-fact tone on some extreme subject matter, it’s a meditation on the encounter with the real few can fathom, much less a boy entering adulthood.
At the heart of Breathing stands a troubled child abandoned by his mother at infancy, who would grow up to kill a man at the age of 14. This is not your typical teenage coming-of-age movie. Serving the tail end of his sentence and in search of a job, Roman needs something beyond a love affair to help him come to his “awakening.” The closest thing to romance for Roman arrives during a chance encounter on a train car with a pretty young, flirtatious tourist (Luna Mijovic), a scene that serves to highlight the innocence lost with subtle pathos. He is on his way back to detention one evening after he starts work in the body collection and transportation business. Their “contact” is reduced to a final glance through the glass of the train’s window when she dons a glove he forgot in the car and waves him farewell.
Roman wanders through life in isolation. Reflecting this sense are neatly framed shots by the experienced cinematographer Martin Gschlacht that capture the action with an appropriate clinical distance, even during close-up reaction shots. The quiet swelling orchestral score by Herbert Tucmandl also highlights Roman’s solitary, discreet suffering. The storytelling stays true to the character and never cops out. Roman is locked in a bedroom at a juvenile detention center and haunts the facility as an outcast among the other boys at the place. The only interaction they offer are curious glances and whispered conversations. The teen seems to find solace at the bottom of a swimming pool. He appears to meditate as he holds his breath while hovering, facedown at the bottom of the pool on more than one occasion in the film.
He speaks of his pain to no one. Though he sometimes acts out passive aggressively, he puts up with a nagging man who seems to be his foster-father. When Roman takes the job of undertaker, his co-workers do not ease him into the task of handling corpses. These are not the morticians who console family members one might expect. These are callous, longshoremen-types who collect fresh bodies at homes or crime scenes because it’s their job. When Roman responds to an ad for the work, Rudolf Kienast (Georg Friedrich), a co-worker who grudgingly takes him under his wing with little affection, comments there could be so many other things to do at 18.
However, the only way back to life for Roman seems to be via this job in death. He never treats the bodies with morbid interest. Newcomer Schubert plays Roman with a quiet purpose. He looks upon the dead bodies with respect and seems to behold something subtly awe-inspiring. His quiet mannerisms reveal an awareness of the sublime encounter with finality provided by these lifeless vessels of flesh. In contrast, his co-workers have gone past any reverence for the deceased, handling them like meat and bones.
In an early scene on the job, Roman cannot bring himself to touch the body of an old woman who lies prostrate on her living room floor. “What good is having children if, in the end, you die alone anyway?” says the deceased’s daughter (Stephanie Taussig). She is overheard from another room, as she prefers to not even look at the body. With Breathing, Markovics rattles awake life by placing his characters close to death in all its mundane perversity. It gives all the more reason for Roman to connect with the person who gave him life, and the relationship between child and mother is gradually revealed as something profound to Roman.
When confronted with the corpse of a young woman with his same last name, he wonders if it is his mother. Noticing his reaction, one of his co-workers comments, “What’s the matter? Never seen a naked lady before?” But this is a moment of awakening for Roman, and it marks the start of his quest to connect with woman who brought him into the world. Karin Lischka plays his young mother with detached cool. When he asks her why did she decide to give him up. She states, “It was the best thing I did in my life.” It marks a potent moment that will force Roman to take some responsibility.
This boy has no mother and will need to face that to grow up. Roman’s life is not a bag of fanciful quirks but a load of baggage that illuminates the difficulty of his character’s path in life. In the end, Markovics does not offer pat redemption for Roman. Instead, he only offers a few small moments to give the viewer enough air to see some potential for Roman’s future. Via death, life is revealed as a messy affair and Markovics never sells the notion short, showing this actor-turned-director has a wise sense of cinematic storytelling and a bright future in smart filmmaking.
Trailer (Note: NSFW in the US):
Breathing is not rated (expect naked corpses) is in German with English subtitles and runs 94 min. It premieres exclusively in South Florida this Friday, Oct. 12, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Kino Lorber provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. It may already be playing in your city or coming soon. Jump through this link for more locations.
Update: I have a contest going for two free tickets to this movie at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. “Like” the Facebook page for “Independent Ethos” via the button in the column to your right to enter and read details.