Breathing Review

The cold, grey damp Vienna of Karl Markovics directorial debut is decidedly not the pretty, polite and sedate Austrian capital of Strauss era waltzes and extravagance.

In Breathing, the actor turned director’s metropolis echoes the dejected pessimism of its teenage protagonist Roman Kogler.

Since his mother abandoned him as a baby, nothing much has gone Kogler’s way. Life has been a cycle of misfortune and mistakes, leading him from the orphanage to a juvenile detention centre courtesy of a brawl that resulted in the death of a fellow fourteen year old boy.

Four years later, the now eighteen year old Kogler is up for parole. Routinely stripped of his dignity quite literally from regular searches, this lost young man has long since replaced any sense of hope with layer upon layer of impenetrable, uncommunicative defence.

Offered employment at a mortuary on his release, one of Kogler’s first corpses is that of a woman who shares his last name. But his job not only ignites Kogler’s search for his estranged mother, but the daily reality also forces him to confront the death he was responsible for.

Having admired Markovics’ under-stated performance as the inscrutable Salomon Sorowitsch in The Counterfeiters, I was curious to see how he might apply that same controlled intensity to his role as writer and director here.

Breathing could have easily been a film of hard luck clichés and awkward respiratory metaphors, but Markovics’ pared-down realism eschews sentimentality and refuses to offer up any obvious answers, with none of the characters saying any more than necessary.

The Austrian born auteur also avoids any metaphorical clumsiness with references to the central theme of breathing being made through Kogler’s desperate need to exercise control as he holds his breath in the detention centre’s swimming pool, along with some direct narrative links to suffocation and resuscitation.

Thomas Schubert brings a raw and unaffected reality to his portrayal of Roman Kogler, justifying Markovics’ punt on including another first-timer in Breathing’s lead role.

And instead of the gaiety of Strauss, Markovics’ Vienna is accompanied by a moody, occasionally jazz-influenced score by Herbert Tucmandl that’s neither overpowering nor seeks to overtly manipulate the emotions.

There’s no happy ending in Breathing, but there are some green shoots of hope even if these take place in a graveyard.

As someone who doesn’t really like Johann the younger but is a sucker for happy endings, that’s more than enough for me.

Malcolm Newton

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April 2012
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