“It’s not your first corpse, is it?” an unwelcoming veteran asks the new, teenage employee in his morgue pickup crew. After studying the boy’s silence for a few seconds, he turns to another co-worker: “You owe me a beer.” In Karl Markovics’s Breathing, the viewer must similarly observe the young protagonist’s sullen exterior, picking up bits of information as he makes his way across the screen in order to gradually piece together the creature behind the opaque, brooding façade.
Said protagonist is Roman (Thomas Schubert), a withdrawn 19-year-old who, in his fifth year at a juvenile detention center near Vienna, is on the margins of society and of adulthood. As his parole hearing draws near, he takes daily trips to the city to find a job that would help his reintegration into the outside world. With the moody Roman, that’s no easy task. (First seen at a metal shop in a brief prologue, he suddenly screams when fitted for a welding helmet.) His exasperated counselor (Gerhard Liebmann) dispenses some cold advice while driving him back to his cell: “You can’t not give a shit your whole life and then wonder why it sucks.”
As befits a figure suspended in numb limbo, Roman at last finds work in the local mortuary, a crossroads where the living work to make the lifeless look presentable. Despite some initial squeamishness, it looks as if the young loner will be as indifferent to the dead bodies as he is to the live ones around him. As he is reminded of the mortality of others and his own, however, he slowly unclenches. In one extended, adroitly handled sequence, Roman and a hitherto hostile colleague (Georg Friedrich) tend to a deceased elderly woman in her home, undressing and sponging her body while at the doorway their boss comforts the woman’s daughter. With few words, the scene evokes the dawning of Roman’s newfound respect for everyone in the room. The morgue also triggers another breakthrough: finding himself face to face with a sewn-up woman bearing his surname, he desperately tracks down the mother (Karin Lischka) who, years before, left him at an orphanage. As his hope for the future intensifies, so does his curiosity about the past.
A seasoned hangdog presence in Austrian cinema best known to American audiences for his performance in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters, Markovics displays a knack for visual storytelling in his debut as a writer-director. His use of rigidly symmetrical compositions captured in lengthy takes is at times too redolent of Haneke, but he comes up with evocative images and motifs throughout the film. A pivotal moment is when Roman lies motionless at the bottom of the detention center’s swimming pool. Expressive of the character’s braided paths of life and death, this shot simultaneously suggests a baby surrounded by amniotic fluid and a cadaver floating in embalming liquid. It’s also one of the several times when the “breathing” of the title becomes an appropriate recurring theme. Whether told to breathe through his mouth when around a particularly foul load of corpses or ordered to blow into a breathalyzer after breaking the center’s rules by having a beer, Roman is always dealing with suffocation of some kind.
Though the idea of a troubled character grappling with life by working with death is not a new one, Breathing consistently engrosses. Neither an eccentric comedy like Yojiro Takita’s Departures nor a corrosive analysis of politics and violence like Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem, its coming-of-age portrait of loss and awakening is sparse without being clinical and rigorous without neglecting emotion. Markovics’s pitch-perfect final shot will leave you anxious to see his future projects.