By Blake Backlash
Breathing: the first thing you have to get the hang of when you stumble into the world, and the last habit you break before you go out of it. By calling his film Breathing, Karl Markovics is no doubt trying to alert us to the film’s thematic concerns with living and dying. However, the title also seems to me to be about the way the way those movements inside our chests serve to connect us. Not only is it something that we all do, it also the most immediate and ever-present way we have to meet the world around us. You might not be thinking about it much as you read this, but if the air around you changed in way that made breathing difficult, you’d soon start to pay attention to it. And that act, of noticing our breathing, also seems to bring the present moment into sharp focus – that’s why tapes that are supposed to help you sleep, or help you meditate in way that helps you forget your worries, start by telling you notice as you breathe in… and out. A breath is a moment.
The film opens with a moment. On a factory floor, the foreman is asking a young man, Roman Kogler (played by Thomas Schubert), if he has much experience of welding. He gets a confident, even cocky answer, and so tries to put a welder’s mask on the boy, who reacts violently and defensively. The next time we see the boy, he’s walking along a nondescript road. A car passes him, then returns to pick him up. It stops and a cigarette is ejected out the passenger-side window. Both scenes are shot in single takes, with a still camera held somewhat distant from the action.
These opening moments suggest a cool, elliptical style where the audience has to try and piece together what is happening and who these people are. In actual fact, Markovics is more generous to his audience and his characters than is initially apparent, and it is not long before we understand that Kogler is a young offender on a kind of work release programme. If the film has a fault, it is that by the time the film gets to Kogler’s parole hearing (it’s for this he needs to show willingness to work), rather too much is explained and what we have seen turns out to be a little too tidily organised in terms of the film’s thesis.
But I still think this is a good, almost a very good film. When I saw it in this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, I had little context to orientate myself; I hadn’t even seen The Counterfeiters, which Markovics acted in. Even so it was the best film I saw in the Festival. Many of the best scenes follow Kogler in the job he eventually gets, working for the Vienna city morgue.
Markovics likes to show us the tools and machines used to move corpses around hygienically and to store them, and it is this focus on detail that makes the scenes where we observe Kogler and his colleagues at work so absorbing. Showing the physical effort that makes his tasks both ritual-like and mundane anchors the film in specifics in a manner that is set off nicely against the moments where the film reaches for the transcendent. This folding of the particular inside the universal powers the film’s best, most moving scene, one that I won’t describe in too much detail, for fear of creating an anticipation that will limit its impact on you. Tensions between characters; the heavy, fleshy reality of death; and the kind of ephemeral details that gather around a person’s life: all these play their parts in the way the scene unfolds.
Thomas Schubert’s central performance goes a long way to getting us on his side. I can’t not feel for him as he gets the chances to share forbidden beer with a hot American student on his train back to prison. I was tempted to write that his performance is all the more remarkable because this is his debut film and Schubert is a non-professional actor, but then I remembered how often non-professional actors draw one’s eye in their debut film roles. That said, almost all the performances are strong, especially Georg Friedrich as one of Kogler’s colleagues at the morgue. Markovics makes good use of the kind of drab, functional locations that seem to exist on the edges that run through all cities: industrial estates, car parks, anonymous flats. In one sly shot, the Wiener Riesenrad is just glimpsed in the distance, reminding us that historic, tourist Vienna is close by.
Sceptics might see the film’s closing shot as a clumsy last-minute dash towards the spiritual. I prefer to see it, not so much as a look up at the heavens, but as an attempt to show us the sky we all shelter under. And to remind us of how vulnerable that makes each of us.