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by Karl Markovics

grade: 7.5

As the title itself suggests, in Breathing, Karl Markovics’ debut film, air is, after water, the second central element. Forced into a world that is not appropriate for his age and that doesn’t seem to belong to him at all, Roman feels he is suffocating and, although he doesn’t have gills, paradoxically it’ s underwater that he really breathes, finding his own, unusual dimension.

Air and Water. Life and Death.

Learning to love life through death. A contrast, this one, very powerful and absolutely not easy to stage, especially if one thinks that the very person who wants to stage it is, here, at his first film as director. Yet, the moment one finds the right approach, very, very interesting things can come out of it. The film in question is Breathing (original title: Atmen), the 2011 debut feature by Austrian actor Karl Markovics, known to the audience for his roles in the first two seasons of Inspector Rex, and in the Oscar-winning feature film for Best Foreign Language Film, The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky in 2007.

If, therefore, for several years now, Austria has specialised in the not easy genre of coming-of-age, Breathing is perfectly placed within this genre, thanks to the story of Roman Kogler (played by an excellent Thomas Schubert), a nineteen-year-old boy who, after having spent his childhood in an orphanage, having been abandoned by his mother, is serving a sentence in a reformatory, having accidentally killed a fellow student. In order to reintegrate into society, therefore, the boy will have to find a job. In this regard, a long experience in a funeral parlour may, perhaps, help him to understand the real worth of life.

A work, this one, which, therefore, is based on the strong contrast between life and death, on the desire to still be a child and the need to become an adult before time. On the grey and monotonous suburban life that contrasts with the frenetic rhythms of a capital city like Vienna. And it is precisely these strong contrasts that make the feature film work, managing to hit the mark and hurt as rarely a first work is able to do.

Karl Markovics, for his part, despite practically no experience behind the camera, has shown considerable mastery of the camera, knowing how to use the right approach to show us both the coldness and cruelty of death, together with the inner conflicts of the young protagonist, so prematurely ‘independent’, as well as, deep down, still in need of someone who can take care of him. It is with Tarkovskian flair, then, that water plays a role here, whether in a swimming pool to dive into, or shown in a television documentary. Water that gives life, but which, in no time at all, can kill, for young Roman, a sort of refuge, a real surrogate for the mother’s placenta, which, however, will never be able to fully fulfil this role. Or will it?

As the title itself suggests (Breathing), air is, after water, the second central element. Forced into a world that is inappropriate for his age and that doesn’t seem to belong to him at all, Roman feels he is suffocating. Just like the protective helmet he must wear at work during the opening scene. And although he has no gills, paradoxically it is underwater that he can really breathe, finding his own, unusual dimension.

Even if, predictably, Markovics’ direction is, at times, somewhat rudimentary (particularly with regard to his excessively emphasized focus on objects and small details), on the other hand, his great sensitivity, together with a particular attention in characterising each individual character (including the dead), makes Breathing a film that hardly goes unnoticed. And if, therefore, we immediately become attached to this young man whose life is so troubled, of even stronger emotional impact are the scenes in which we see the composition of the body of an elderly woman who has died at home, as well as the pain of a woman in witnessing the premature death of her companion following an accident near the Prater.

Moments, these, that will make – at the end of this singular coming-of-age story – Roman a brave and responsible young adult. So self-confident that he will finally be able to confront his past and even find someone who knows how to teach him how to tie a tie.

Original title: Atmen
Directed by: Karl Markovics
Country/year: Austria / 2011
Running time: 94’
Genere: drama, coming-of-age
Cast: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Georg Friedrich, Gerhard LIebmann, Stefan Matousch, Luna Zimic Mijovic, Georg Veitl, Klaus Rott
Screenplay: Karl Markovics
Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht
Produced by: Epo-Film Produktionsgesellschaft

Info: the page of Breathing on the website of the Österreichisches Filminstitut