Breathing (Atmen): Cannes 2011 Review

Breathing (Atmen) - Movie Still  2011
Cannes Film Festival
Spare, meditative and hauntingly eloquent, Austrian actor-turned-director Karl Markovics’ first feature is among the more promising debuts in Cannes.

Compelling directorial debut from Austrian actor Karl Markovics about a young parolee's struggles outside of prison and within himself.

CANNES – A sober, compelling drama distinguished by its intelligent restraint, controlled visual style and a matter-of-fact observational approach that gives it bracing dramatic integrity, Breathing marks an assured move into directing for Karl Markovics, a veteran Austrian actor who starred in the 2008 Foreign-Language Oscar winner The Counterfeiters.

Whether it’s his own cool compositional eye or that of accomplished cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, Markovics lets us know we’re in sure hands from the movie’s first few expansive widescreen shots. He also has a swift, economical way of getting us inside the head of taciturn protagonist Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), whose loner world is a place of little warmth but even less self-pity.

An 18-year-old inmate in a juvenile detention center on the drab outskirts of Vienna, Roman has lived in confinement since he caused the death of another boy four years earlier. With no family or connections, he has been nixed for release at numerous parole hearings. He holds scant hope that an upcoming one will be different. His counselor (Gerhard Liebmann) reminds Roman that his chances would be improved if he could hold down a job in the work-release program.

He signs on for a trial period as a mortuary service provider, transporting corpses. This seems an unlikely road to stability, especially given his unfriendly treatment from co-workers. But as he assists in the solemn rite of bathing and dressing the body of an old woman, something approaching mutual respect is born between Roman and the the most antagonistic of his colleagues (Georg Friedrich).

When one of the body bags that passes through his hands is labeled with his same surname, Roman briefly suspects the dead woman may be the mother who placed him in an orphanage as an infant. That proves not to be true, but it prompts him for the first time to investigate his origins.

Nonprofessional actor Schubert’s first wrenching departure from absolute impassivity to a visible display of emotion comes some 40 minutes into the movie, suggesting how much suppressed feeling is locked up inside this intense young man. His stunned expression and physical awkwardness during his first close encounters with death reveal the depths of sorrow and remorse beneath his still waters.

There are gentle moments that indicate Roman’s consideration of what a life outside might be like, particularly when he shares a train compartment with a flirty tourist (Luna Mijovic) on the way back to the detention center one night. When he does eventually meet his mother (Karin Lischka), the encounter and those that follow seem promising, deflating, illuminating and perplexing all at once.

Markovics’ contemplative screenplay supplies information in subtle strokes. He places a refreshing trust in the audience’s ability to absorb the complexities of his characters without being bombarded with exposition and explanatory dialogue. The film’s perceptiveness means that its themes of atonement, of reconnection with the world, and of hope all emerge quietly, without needing to be spelled out or cushioned by artificially cozy consolation.

The unembellished realism of the acting and unhurried fluidity of Alarich Lenz’s editing keep the relatively uneventful story engrossing. The film’s look is carefully composed without being overly formal. Markovics and Gschlacht frame Roman in ways that seem to underline his alienation while hinting at his growing receptiveness to the idea of actually entering life rather than just allowing it to happen all around him.

The water sequences that punctuate the action, when Roman swims in the detention center pool, are a lovely illustration of the title, Breathing, a simple act that’s both a natural impulse and an intimidating challenge for this damaged character.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Directors’ Fortnight
Cast: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Gerhard Liebmann, Georg Friedrich
Director-screenwriter: Karl Markovics
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris
Production: EPO Filmproduktion
Producers: Dieter Pochlatko, Nikolaus Wisiak
Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht
Production designer: Isidor Wimmer
Music: Herbert Tucmandl
Costume designer: Caterina Czepek
Editor: Alarich Lenz
No rating: 93 minutes