'The Breath' ('Der atem'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A monochrome mixtape of moving personal stories.

German director Uli M Schueppel completes his 'Berlin Chants' trilogy with this patchwork documentary of traumatic memories and intimate confessions.

There are four million stories in the city of Berlin. The Breath collects together just 26 of them into a poetic documentary mosaic, all set against starkly beautiful monochrome footage of the German capital at night. For the third film in his “Berlin Chants” trilogy, director Uli M Schueppel draws on the canon of classic cinematic portraits of his adopted home city, paying subtle but knowing homage to Walter Rutter's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and the Wim Wenders classic Wings of Desire (1987). Cementing his long-standing association with the Berlinale, whose curtain-raising ident clip he also directed, Schueppel premiered his latest category-blurring work in the festival's Panorama section earlier this month.

Schueppel made his name in the 1980s as semi-official chronicler of Berlin's hedonistic art-rock underground. A recent poll by the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper ranked his Nick Cave tour documentary, The Road to God Knows Where (1990), in the top 20 of rock films. The Breath is a much more contemplative and lyrical work, though its pared-down black-and-white aesthetic is rooted in the same punky spirit of DIY minimalism. It completes a trilogy which began with The Place (1998) and The Day (2008), each a collection of personal stories loosely centered on a single theme: space, time and the human body. Both previous chapters balanced healthy festival runs with stopovers at prestige art spaces including MoMA in New York. This episodic but emotionally raw finale seems likely to follow a similar trajectory.

The unnamed interviewees in The Breath are real Berliners sharing an intimate, heart-stopping moment that has marked them forever. Schueppel captures each of them in wordless isolation, their stories playing as voiceover. A train driver recalls the childhood trauma when his parents announced plans to divorce. A newsreader from the old Communist East Germany remembers her mother being arrested by the Stasi secret police. One man confesses how an argument with his former partner escalated into shocking violence. Another recalls the horror of witnessing a deadly terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market in 2016, which left 12 dead and 56 injured.

Inevitably, given its premise, grim events dominate The Breath. Addiction, conflict, death and separation are recurring motifs. But there are moments of beauty, levity and unexpected joy, too. A sex worker describes feeling both scared and aroused by her first paid encounter. An African migrant recalls a spine-tingling supernatural apparition. And a Siberian rock drummer relives the liberating euphoria of her first visit to an American beach. Some of these anecdotes have scant connection to Berlin, besides the fact that the narrators have made the city their home.

The Breath is a small, personal, emphatically arty mixtape movie whose ghostly narrators leave just fleeting impressions, like chance encounters in late-night bars. But many of their haunting stories linger long after the film ends, their emotional power amplified by Schueppel's strong stylistic choices. Cinematographer Cornelius Plache wrings maximum visual poetry from sparkly, high-contrast, monochrome 16mm film, while the moody, churning, droning score by Missouri-born avant-rock composer Christina Vantzou adds an extra layer of eerie beauty.

Production company: Schueppel Films
Cast: Eva-Maria Lemke, Alexander Jacoby, Ilker Abay, Sarah Klute, Sophia Chapman, Olga Dyer, Gelek Ngawang, Bienvenue Mbarga, Uwe Schmidt, Daniel Zschigner
Director-screenwriter-producer: Uli M Schueppel
Cinematographer: Cornelius Plache
Editor: Ernst Carias
Music: Christina Vantzou
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Schueppel Films

95 minutes