Markovics’ directorial debut is a claustrophobic exploration of guilt, suffused with the sweet stench of death. The previously unknown Thomas Schubert plays the orphaned Roman Kogler, an inmate at a Viennese juvenile detention centre with an imminent parole hearing. Having been turned down in the past, and given the seriousness of his crime, he’s less than optimistic about his chances – without giving it away, Roman’s transgressions run deeper than spraying up a few trains and shoplifting a few beers.
The film follows Roman’s attempts to get a meaningful job to support his application. After a few false starts, he’s given a break as a coroner’s assistant, a clinical, no-nonsense affair in Austria with all the hallmarks of cold, state-run efficiency. Dressed in dreary grays, Roman and his colleagues dart around the city in a truck full of tin containers, emptying the morgues and dressing the dead.
On day release, Roman’s time away from the detention centre’s iron bars and strip searches is borrowed, pervading the film with a palpable tension. Roman quietly grapples with his guilt, and the pain of being both a motherless child and a young man (Breathing features one of the most gut-wrenchingly awkward boy-meets-girl scenes you’re ever likely to see on screen). Despite all his problems, the subdued Roman seemingly explodes on just two occasions. For a film shot in such an suffocating, explosive environment, Markovics’s piece demonstrates a remarkable maturity.
This is a slow and beautifully shot piece that expertly constricts the viewer at the threshold of discomfort, whilst simultaneously revealing a freedom granted by an awareness of death’s proximity. Remarkable.