Year: 2011
Country:
Austria
Language: German
Director: Karl Markovics
Screenplay: Karl Markovics
Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht
Soundscore: Herbert Tucmandl
Cast: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Gerhard Liebmann
Runtime: 90 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: Atmen (Deutsch/English)

Atmen screened in select UK cinemas earlier this year. The subtitled DVD will be released in the UK on September 10 and can be preordered. However, the film is already available at amazon.de (with English subtitles included). 

Atmen (Breathing) is the debut feature of Karl Markovics, a name that may not be familiar to most despite the fact that the actor-turned-director had the lead role in the Oscar-winning Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, Austria/Germany, 2007). In the German-speaking countries, however, it was the Austrian TV series Kommissar Rex (Inspector Rex1994-2004) that made his name, Markovics playing Stockinger (better known as “Stocki”), the bumbling sidekick of lead crime inspector Richard Moser and the titular German shepherd Rex. Markovics’s success came somewhat unexpectedly: Rex was of course the real star of the TV drama, enchanting viewers with his adorable dog antics not only in German-speaking nations, but Europe-wide and even beyond, while his owner, Moser, was the (supposed) human eye candy. However, it was the awkward Stocki – constantly grumpy, constantly fighting over Wurstsemmeln with Rex – that became the more interesting character and even earned Markovics a spin-off crime series of his own with a prolific acting career to follow.

Eternal battle: Stocki (Markovics), Rex and… Wurstsemmeln (rolls containing a particular kind of sausage).

With Atmen Markovics finally stepped behind the camera and while he is no Michael Haneke just yet1 – Austria’s most critically acclaimed cine auteur -, it is a fine first story he tells. Camera focus is on Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert, in a spot-on first performance), a nineteen-year old that has grown up in care homes and, after killing a mate, is counting down the days until he might be released on parole. He is the friendless outsider in a detention centre (neither fellow inmates or prison guards care for him in the slightest manner) and equally unsuccessful in the world outside (where he ventures on a daily basis for work). Immature and often unable to control his temper, Roman keeps getting fired from any employment he takes on and, with a request for early release having been turned down once already, his caseworker is losing hope.

Roman decides to apply for one more job: undertaker. Although he is no more welcomed there than at any of his previous places of employment and makes some instant enemies on the first day, Roman manages to hold on to the position. He does not particularly like handling the dead, which awaken a strange mixture of both fear and fascination in him, but is somehow unable to look and walk away. When the corpse of a woman bears his (fairly common) surname, Roman is shaken to the core, thinking that it might be the mother he never met. The encounter stirs him into action as he tries to finally solve the mystery of his origin and track down the person that gave birth to him.

In the backstreets and the underground of society: handling the dead.

Atmen is primarily a portrait of an introvert character, a delinquent and failed member of society, but also an individual that has been failed by society. Roman has spent his entire life inside, first in care homes, now in a juvenile centre, without anyone ever taking interest in him or having experienced what it is like to be loved or have a family. The more Markovics’s camera dissects Roman’s life, the clearer it becomes that it is devoid of meaning – he is visibly detached from everything. He ignores his caseworker’s lecturing, his behaviour is antisocial – he jumps out of the car mid-conversation to buy cigarettes. The police videos taken after the murder he committed provoke no reaction. Roman also barely speaks, uttering no more words than necessary as he is shut inside of himself to such an extent that even verbal connections to society are broken.

Now that Roman has come of age, his impending release is the first real experience of the world and complete freedom. However, beyond the institutional walls that have so long restricted his life is nothing – nothing or no-one that await him, with the state care system no longer having any obligations towards him and family non-existent. The daily furloughs thus provide a taster of the unwelcoming, even cruel world out there. Interactions at work are consistently negative regardless of whether Roman is at fault (being late) or not (his inability to put on a tie properly due to never having been taught this properly).2 Even more disheartening is the encounter with his biological mother when he does manage to track her down, as she reveals that giving him away was the “best thing [she] ever did” – harsh words for any individual to hear, but even more so for this lost soul. Ironically, the woman’s assertion is true, but the backstory of Roman’s abandonment provides as much relief as it shocks. In the few positive moments that do arise outside, such as when Roman shares a conversation and laughter over beer with a lively girl backpacking through Europe, the disconnect between the adolescent and ‘ordinary’ persons looms large (and also lands him in trouble later, having broken the detention centre’s no-alcohol rule). Although Roman tells the girl in all honesty that he is on his way back to prison, she interprets the answer as that he must work as a guard there, for the idea that he might actually be a criminal is unthinkable for someone – in absolute contrast to the protagonist – so firmly planted in the world outside.

Objectification, dehumanisation.

Markovics’s Atmen demonstrates an eye for cinematography, the faded, blueish/greenish-grey colour palette conveying the bleakness of Roman’s situation. It is not the imperial, awe-inspiring Vienna we see, but a place of gloomy underground stations, empty hallways in penal institutions, desolate apartments of the recently deceased – the dirty backstreets of a city and society, symbolically reflecting the social periphery of Roman’s existence. The cinematographic accomplishment extends beyond singular shots to a number of memorable scenes, including a strip-check that Roman must undergo every time he returns to the detention centre. The check is so methodological and ruthless that it objectifies and removes the character even further from society, allowing him no human dignity of any sort. Noteworthy are also the moments at the prison pool, whether focused on just Roman lingering under water or the feet of the jail mates that shun him.

Atmen is a film that observes rather than judges. Though the person we watch is a murderer, it feels difficult to straight-out label him as such, for Roman is neither a hardened criminal nor intrinsically evil – just a wretched person that, through no fault of his own, has fallen through all the gaps of society. His plight eerily reminds of language deprivation experiments you read about in linguistics class – when Frederick II had, in order to determine whether language was innate, a group of babies raised without any human interaction. Though fed, dressed and always closely watched, without being given love in either verbal or physical form, the infants died.3 Fortunately, Roman’s fate is not quite so bleak. While Atmen ends on a somewhat open note – we do not hear the verdict on his early release request – there are signs that things may turn for the better and that some, if ever so slightly, do care for the boy.

Overall Verdict: Atmen is a quiet and moving portrait of an individual at the periphery of society. It is narrated with a camera that observes rather judges, wordless scenes communicating as much as spoken interactions as viewers are challenged with a picture that is not as black and white as we might have hoped it would be.

Rating: 7.5/10

Bonus Bits:

  • Interview with director Karl Markovics.
  • The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 in the Directors’ Fortnight section, winning the ‘European Cinemas Label’ award for the best European film.
  • Atmen was Austria’s official submission for the 2011 Best Foreign Film Academy Award but did not make the final list of nominees.

Image Gallery:

Interestingly, double Palme d’Or winner Haneke directed his first feature film, Der siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989) at age 47, offering hope for any late starters! (He did make some TV films before this.)

I watched the film with a number of friends from different countries. The question arose whether the negativity in interactions had not been pushed to an extreme, however, all the Austrians in the group agreed that it was not in any manner farfetched.

3 See wikipedia.org.