The first image in Karl Markovics’ Breathing is of a young man before a table at a new job. A manager is asking him about his welding experience and attempts to put a protective mask on the boy, who bursts out in protest. Markovics refuses to decode this gesture, cutting immediately to a plain country road over which the opening credits appear. The rest of the film unpacks this first moment, exploring the coiled aggression and frustration of the boy, Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), a 19-year-old orphan and murderer.
It’s a stylistic crutch in cinema to have a young, mumbling malcontent barely speak for the film’s first two acts, but Breathing distinguishes itself among this sort of film by giving Roman not only real motive for his behavior, but also an interesting world to inhabit. Roman lives in a boys’ prison and takes on work transporting bodies for the city morgue of Vienna. The technical details of both Roman’s home and his work are fascinating. At the prison, Roman has a custodial officer, regular strip searches, and an enthusiasm for swimming alone, all of which Markovics uses to solid effect. Roman is steadily revealed to be haunted by his crime and his abandonment; he is silent for long stretches, relentlessly standoffish, even endures his cavity searches and breathalyzer tests with a discomfiting nonchalance. He’s a boy for whom normalcy has never existed, only a quietly complicated relationship with his own institutionalization. His new employment offers him a chance to inspire more fear than he endures — after learning of his new job, the other boys refuse to touch him or even enter the swimming pool with him — but Roman remains unable to comprehend or participate in modern life.
The technical necessities of the modern mortuary allow Markovics to avoid lingering on his taciturn protagonist. Roman stands aside as his coworkers, for whom the dead have long been a mere chore, go about their business. The men do home pickups, wash and dress bodies, even find themselves called to grisly crime scenes. Markovics approaches death matter-of-factly; the bodies remain unromanticized, flopping awkwardly, their heft often exhausting the morgue employees. There’s opportunity for humor here, but Markovics wisely avoids it for the most part, instead focusing on how the bodies appear to Roman and how he learns to grow comfortable around the dead. The sheer necessity of many of the job’s tasks forces him to ignore his unease, and he grows to respect his duties as he clearly never has before. The cinematography and imagery throughout is straightforward: Roman exists in a predominantly grey world, with damp train light, sickly dawn clouds, and the yellowing door of his cell, coated with juvenile graffiti.
The film finds its real arc once the crew happens upon a body that shares Roman’s surname. Roman, given up while very young, convinces himself the body belongs to his mother. Once he discovers that it is not, he becomes curious about his mother’s identity for perhaps the first time. He finds her in the phonebook and ultimately follows her to an IKEA, where he confronts her. He tells her he’s a diving instructor; she admits abandoning him was the best thing she ever did. Neither is particularly adept at honesty, and their reunion is often difficult to watch. The sort of love people often assume occurs naturally between mother and child is here totally absent. How this relationship grows from here involves exploring the darker truths in both their lives, helping to explain Roman’s tangled affinity with death.
Markovics tells a stunningly grim tale that ultimately approaches the happiest possible ending. The film builds towards Roman’s hearing before a judge who in the past has repeatedly denied his release; Roman’s crime never becomes more than backstory, only ever the worst kind of childhood fuckup. Roman’s coworkers slowly transform from hectoring shittalkers into a set of what might be considered older brothers. Markovics reveals this in subtle gestures, brief revelations that countervail the film’s opening shot — a friend showing Roman how to tie his tie, a brief embrace with his counselor, a brief flirt with an American girl on a train — and through this we get an image of Roman’s budding humanity. As redemption tales go, Breathing is a remarkable portrait, an intense tale told forthrightly and honestly. Markovics is able to take the most astonishing moment of life — death — and render it banal before restoring it again to a place heavy not with reverence or fear but with grace.