We’ve come a long way from The Sound of Music. A long way. And that’s no bad thing – this is another starkly filmed portrayal of the bleaker side of Austria (see Michael) reflecting a more sombre life where there the brown paper packages tied up with string almost certainly have a head in them. This is Vienna, but not as we know it.
Breathing is Karl Markovics first as director (he starred in 1997 Foreign Oscar winner The Counterfeiters) and it’s an assured debut. Roman is a juvenile offender who has spent his childhood in institutions then been imprisoned at 14 for killing another boy in a fight. He’s now 19 and coming up for parole so working day release to support his case, though struggling to find something he can stick with. Roman’s life has been spent within grey walls, with little scope for anything but following rules – it’s left him without many of the usual building blocks for life and also slightly claustrophobic, and we only understand late in the film how this might have contributed to the killing he’s doing time for.
As almost a last resort, and when it seems like everyone is giving up on him, Roman finds work in a morgue and after a rocky start with some unfriendly colleagues who don’t expect the youngster to last long and despite the grim parade of corpses he has to learn how to deal with, Roman begins to find a role for himself. As he does, he forms some gradual bonds with his workmates and begins to address the real possibility of having a life of his own. As he starts to open up, the arrival of a corpse sharing his surname prompts him to track down the mother who dumped him as a baby.
This is Thomas Schubert’s first film and under Markovics’ guidance, he puts in a remarkably intense performance as Roman, a lost teenager trying to understand how to grow up. It’s starkly filmed with occasional bursts of intense colour – like the deep blue of the swimming pool Roman finds escape in or the garish holiday advertisement he passes every morning on the way to work, all bosoms and sunshine. It isn’t until the moment Roman finally confronts his mother – in Ikea of all places – that suddenly colour is everywhere, there are couples, conversations, meatballs… all the things that are suddenly within reach.
Breathing is an extremely powerful film – the scene where the body of an old woman is washed and dressed while her daughter cries outside is particularly gently done and a real gem. You find yourself rooting for this quiet troubled boy as, in his own steady way, Roman deals with dark pools of his past and finds a way to move forward.
This is not an easy film to watch. It’s bleak, disturbing and full of things most of us don’t want to think about, let alone see on a big screen. If you have the stomach for it, this is a startling debut from Markus Schleizner – a brave and unsettling film which takes us into the home of an Austrian man who keeps a boy, Wolfgang, in his cellar. We don’t know how long he’s been there or how he got there, although we are given a fair idea, but it’s long enough for the boy to have accepted the situation and formed an attachment of sorts to his captor despite the atrocities he is subjected to. You don’t see the worst things, but they’re there, in your mind’s eye, every time Schleizner cuts away and there’s just a black screen. And as you watch the mundane routine of their daily life – the washing up after dinner, the scrubbing of a sink, the late night tv, it’s all with a crushing sense of foreboding.
Michael does his best to function as a normal person – he chases promotion at work, he goes on a lads skiing trip, he chats to his neighbours. But he does these things with the air of the permanent outsider, the office nerd – he’s never really at home in the company of anyone, avoiding too much social interaction even with his own family, though craving it in the same way he seems to crave normality. In the one scene that’s played a bit for laughs during his ill-fated skiing holiday, you might smile at his Mr Bean moment, but you can’t really laugh, because the unspeakable horror is always there and you can’t see Michael with anything other than disgust.
Schleizner has worked closely with Michael Haneke (best known for the also very creepy Funny Games) and his influence is clear – Michael is filmed with a matter of factness that brings nothing to the screen other than the bare minimum needed for each scene. It’s cold, stark, honest filmmaking. There’s a shot early on when you first see the door to the cellar and the boy appears slowly out of the darkness – you’ll find yourself holding your breath. And the final scenes, which I won’t spoil, will have you fighting the urge to shout at the screen.
Michael Fuith is perfect as Michael, in what must have been a hard role to take on (yes, there are a lot of Michaels involved). If you can bear to be anxious for an hour and a half, this is one to see.