In the Buddhist tradition, breathing grounds us in the present moment. According to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “Breathing opens the door to stopping and looking deeply in order to enter the domain of concentration and insight.” For Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert) in Karl Markovics remarkable debut film Breathing, it is simply the means to avoid suffocating in a world in which, even at the age of nineteen, he has already suffered many losses. Written and directed by Austrian actor Karl Markovics (“The Counterfeiters”) and winner of the best film award at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes last year, Breathing is the story of a sullen young man waging a lonely battle to recover his selfhood.
Having grown up in an orphanage after being abandoned by his mother (there is no mention of his father), Roman has spent the last five years of his life in a juvenile-detention center for the killing of a young bully. “I didn’t murder him, he died in hospital,” he proclaims. Taciturn to the point of mute, Roman does not know much about life outside the confines of his protective but non-stimulating environment. His life consists of reading travel magazines, smoking, sleeping, and swimming. Even when he is swimming, he is alone. The other boys line up outside the pool and wait for him to get out. Hesitant and afraid, he masks his fear with a swagger, but no one is fooled.
To have a chance at getting out, Roman is told by his parole officer that he must show that he can hold a steady job. Let go from his tryout as a welder because he refused to wear a helmet, he is hired to be a mortuary attendant after answering an ad, but emotionally he is barely distinguishable from the corpses and is treated shabbily by his robot-like co-workers who know he is in detention. He hangs on, however, knowing that this may be his last chance for parole. Slowly, he learns how to perform better at his job and the negative attitude of the harshest co-worker changes to one of support, depicted in a tender sequence where they wash and dress the body of an older woman together while her daughter waits outside the room.
Every day, Roman must get up at the crack of dawn to take the train into Vienna where he passes by a huge billboard advertising a vacation that ironically implores us to “dive into adventure.” When he returns each evening, he has to undergo a humiliating strip search. Something finally clicks for him when he deals with a corpse who has his same last name. Suddenly motivated, he tracks down his mother (Karin Lischka) to confront her about the reason she gave him up at birth. When she tells him that “it was the best thing I ever did in my life,” he is understandably stunned. Though the mood of Breathing is mostly solemn, there is a lovely scene on the subway where a young American girl sits next to Roman and they share a beer together (which he is not allowed to do).
Though he knows he will never see her again, it is the first time he has smiled during the movie and it signals a process of awakening. In Breathing, Markovics has woven a potentially sentimental tale into a film that is grounded in subtlety and nuance. Though raw and, at times bleak, it is a work that is laced with a gentle compassion, and the touching performance of non-professional actor Thomas Schubert is a revelation. Though he still has a long way to go, the panning shot of cinematographer Martin Gschlacht transporting us high above the grey city, above its cemeteries, above its jails and its claustrophobic environment suggests that Roman can now be tall as the sky and wide enough to embrace, for the first time, what it means to be free.