Breathing is the debut film written and directed by Karl Markovics – the Austrian star of The Counterfeiters.
Breathing centres on the story of Roman, a 19 year old man in a youth detention centre. He has been institutionalised his whole life after being abandoned by his parents as a baby. As his parole date approaches his social worker is keen for him to hold down a job to increase his chances of release.
He takes a post at the state-run mortuary service. He is confronted with dead bodies and seemingly heartless colleagues and is ostracised by the other men at the detention centre.
The film is a beautiful piece of work. The cinematography is minimal – single angles and still shots are used in most scenes. Roman in particular often passes in and out of the camera’s gaze – it makes his position seem ever more transient and unstable.
The dialogue follows this theme – Roman is mostly uncommunicative and the silences are painful as it seems he has learnt it is useless to express himself.
At the preview of the film at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London Markovics talked about the film and offered some insights into its conception. He spoke about making films about ordinary people, saying, “My father was a bus driver. I know these people, these working class people – it is my background. It’s a story about them, and me, and about life and death.”
The film immediately strikes you as well researched. Markovics explained how he had met people in the criminal justice system who wanted to help with the project: “There is only one youth detention centre for men in Austria. The director of the centre unofficially allowed me to interview the prison workers and the prisoners.
“I saw they had a swimming pool so I used that in the film. I never would have dared to make this up.” He also spent two weeks driving in the morgue vans “to see and to learn”, explaining “There are hardly any private companies doing this in Austria; it is 80 percent public.”
He spoke movingly about the film, saying, “It’s all about empathy, knowing that I am not alone. Roman thinks, ‘Prison is a home, or at least a little secure. I’m not happy but at least I know it’.”
Summing up Roman’s story he says, “Suddenly he has to face something on the other side of the wall, and that is called life – and he has to face it.”
Breathing is a moving and sensitive film that makes you think about how our lives shape who we are, who other people are, and how we get to empathise with each other. And through all of this it makes you laugh sometimes too.
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