Review: Breathing (2011)
With his role as the Jewish forgery expert made to work for the Nazis to overthrow the English economy in the Oscar-winning Austrian film The Counterfeiters, Karl Markovics proved himself a talented actor, his portrait of the morally conflicted Sally Sorowitsch a layered and contemplative performance. That Breathing, his debut as a writer/director, has demonstrated his true talents lie behind the camera, then, is indicative of the sheer immensity of Markovics’ achievement. This is an astonishing work for a first-time filmmaker, a remarkably astute examination of humanity and mortality that heralds the arrival of both a phenomenal new directorial talent and an incredibly gifted young actor. It may seem hyperbolic with 2012 yet in its youngest days, but even so I feel confident in proclaiming Breathing a sure bet for one of the year’s greatest films.
Nineteen years old and never outside of institutions of one form or another, the orphanage-raised Roman’s efforts to hold down a job to ease his transition from his juvenile detention centre home to a life as part of society consistently fail. Applying for a position as an assistant in the city morgue, he seems better suited to work among the dead than among the living. When he discovers the body of a woman sharing his surname, he begins to wonder about his family, and why it is he was given up to an orphanage as a baby.
With minimal dialogue, he recalls the physical intensity of cinema’s classic stoics, but with a greater underlying fragility that makes itself clear beneath his demure exterior.
Breathing’s first scene encapsulates, in a sort of microcosmic sketch, the entire tonal and thematic content of the film. Asking Roman if he can weld on his first day in a blacksmith’s, the foreman slaps a helmet on his head, prompting him to pull it off and scream aloud. He is a character suffocated by past trauma, defined by his inability to overcome the sensation of discomfort with other people. His crime is left unsaid for a good deal of the film, but when it is revealed we understand it to be as much a consequence of his own (lack of) upbringing as any wrongdoing nature inherent within him. It is not just Markovics who makes an impressive debut with Breathing; this is the first film role for Thomas Schubert. With minimal dialogue, he recalls the physical intensity of cinema’s classic stoics, but with a greater underlying fragility that makes itself clear beneath his demure exterior. That Schubert has never before acted is almost unthinkable; a performance of this magnitude delivered by one entirely new to the craft is deserving of serious recognition. He infuses the character with a profound humanity, a weakness desperately trying to hide itself. It’s a magnificent portrayal of an innocent child trapped in a body thrown too early into a world of adult fears and the grim reality of existence.
It’s rare to find a filmmaker whose skills in writing and direction are equally matched; often one aspect of production will far overshadow the other. Markovics’ aesthetic is one of still shots and wide angles, his camera seldom moving and remaining instead a passive observer on the peripheries of the action. His cinematographer Martin Gschlacht also shot Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, one of the greatest films to emerge from Austria in recent years, and the same powerful imagery that defined that film is here clearly visible too. There is throughout the film a proliferation of beautiful underwater photography showing Roman hugging the bottom of the centre’s swimming pool, fantastically captured renditions of his brief moments of escape from the surface world of entrapment and oppression. Markovics and Gschlacht make an incredible team, their combined visual proficiency no better evidenced than in a strikingly emotional scene wherein Roman and his colleagues dress the corpse of an old woman. The soft music of the soundtrack compliments the gentle compassion of the camerawork, taking in the naked body of the deceased in an appropriately reverential manner.
There’s something in the monetisation of death and the commercialisation of loss that attempts to numb the visceral nature of grief, but only seems to accentuate the humanity of it all, the truths too fundamental to be suppressed.
The business of death has made a significant contribution to artistic renditions of human mortality. In both the film Departures—winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar the year after The Counterfeiters, incidentally—and the TV show Six Feet Under, the funeral trade has provided the foundation for powerful ruminations on how life can be defined by our awareness of its impending end. There’s something in the monetisation of death and the commercialisation of loss that attempts to numb the visceral nature of grief, but only seems to accentuate the humanity of it all, the truths too fundamental to be suppressed. The aforementioned scene in Breathing is one of the most powerful cinematic acknowledgements of the frailty of life I can ever recall seeing, a bold and beautiful visualisation of human existence that encapsulates the sum total of our lives in one phenomenal sequence. It’s the kind of poignant and invariably moving moment that could be maudlin in the wrong hands, but in those of Markovics it becomes the definitive transformative point at which his film acquires the true brilliance of tear-inducing profundity.
Maybe the fact that Markovics and Schubert are entirely new to their respective roles contributes to the intrinsic value of Breathing; that such an insightful work of cinematic art could come from people trying something new for the first time perhaps adds to the significance of the finished product. Its makers aside, this is a remarkable look at life and death, a beautifully rendered and note-perfect examination of the way humanity is shaped by the turmoil of its past and the inevitable conclusion in its future. As proficient in its storytelling as in its direction, the naturalism of the performances and transcendent truths of the themes elevates Breathing to the level of profound greatness. By turns funny, tough, compassionate, and immensely moving, its wide release should be keenly awaited by all; if we see a better film this year we’ll be very fortunate indeed.