He is quiet, almost sullen, but there is also a coiled tension there, as if he’s ready to react – possibly more strongly than expected, possibly violently. Talk to him the wrong way, touch him perhaps, and he might lash out. His new colleagues have their suspicions about him: a young man his age, practically still a boy, who has been in juvenile detention for the past five years? There’s almost only one kind of crime that could account for that.
So perhaps it’s the best thing for everyone involved if the work he applies for, in order to appeal for early parole, has him dealing with those who are already dead.
Atmen (Breathing), the debut of Austrian director Karl Markovics that came out in 2011, bears some superficial similarities to the German 2018 film In den Gängen. Both films feature protagonists lost somewhere in the No Man’s Land between adolescence and adulthood, shy men who have been to prison and who, more than anything, seem to be intent on vanishing into the background. Young men who can seem almost slow and backward at first but who are simply so internalised it’s almost impossible to guess at what, if anything at all, is going on inside them. There is a scene at the juvenile detention centre where the camera moves past the various cells, and practically everyone has found a way to signal their identity in clear, broad strokes in how they decorate the small cubicles that they call their own: this young man is into football, this one likes scantily clad girls. The cell of the protagonist, Roman (Thomas Schubert), has mostly bare walls, except for a small picture of a rural landscape, cut from a travel magazine, barely the size of a postcard. His makeshift coffee maker (a simple water boiler and a laminated container, as the institution prohibits all objects that can be broken and shaped into weapons to use against others or oneself) displays more personality than his cell.
Where In den Gängen had a laconic, oddball, at times almost surreal humour, Atmen begins more sombrely, recalling the naturalism (with hints of lyricism) of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Any humour that is there at the beginning of the film emerges from its supporting characters: after losing a first job due to poor impulse control, Roman applies for a starting position with the municipal undertakers of Vienna, Austria, where his new colleagues have a bone-dry jocularity that is mordant, even seeming cruel at first. Dead is dead, corpses need to be transported from A to B, sentimentality is a waste of time, and they definitely don’t have time to gently introduce some kid to the tasks and rituals of collecting the dead and preparing them for their last journey. Especially not a kid who, they suspect, turned a living being into a corpse himself. Why else would a 19-year-old have been stuck in youth detention for five years?
One of the other undertakers, Rudolf (Georg Friedrich), takes an initial dislike to Roman, but when the young man stands up for himself, and later for others in the face of authority, Rudolf develops a begrudging respect for the young man. One of the most affecting scenes of the film is set just after Roman lashes back at his older colleague in the flat of an old woman found dead, showing more spiritedness than Rudolf had thought possible. For the first time we see Rudolf as anything other than a cynic and a bully, as he gently, respectfully washes the old woman and puts clean, elegant clothes on her, giving her back the dignity that an ignoble, small death had taken from her – and Roman watches and learns.
The process we see Roman undergo is not dissimilar: we see a human being emerging, perhaps for the first time, from years of isolation, taking shape not as the man he has made himself in prison but as the one he could be. We learn more about his life, his history as a child growing up in institutional care and his sense of abandonment. We see him reaching out to others, tentatively, a little clumsily, and trying to come to terms with his past. The Vienna that Roman finds outside the grey walls of the institution isn’t the sugary confection of tourist guides, it is harsh, grimy and sarcastic, but Markovics and his cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and editor Alarich Lenz find startling, beautiful images to depict Roman’s rebirth into a world he’s never experienced. The other young men at the detention centre may begin to avoid him: he’s the weird loner who handles corpses all day long. No matter. In quiet, elliptic ways, the film shows Roman finding contentment in taking care with, and giving care to, those who no longer feel it. In the midst of death, he is making a life for himself.