Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Breathe in deep, let it out... and cough.

Atmen (Breathe) is a beautifully shot, brilliantly narrated and immaculately acted out film. It follows the story of the 19-year old Ramon Kogler, who has been put into juvenile detention for a crime he committed when he was 14. Brought up in an orphanage, experienced near-death from suffocation under a pillow and a good breather at the bottom of a swimming pool, Ramon is struggling to get hold of a job that is key to win his way out of the juvenile detention. While Ramon gets accustomed to see, touch, wash and finally breathe dead bodies in his new work at a municipal undertaker's office, we stroll through the harsh winter days of Vienna and the cold deadliness of an abandoned youth that is coming to grips with social realities, and re-integrating into a world outside the secluded compounds of white-washed, securely-gated, IKEA-like youth prison. As the fallen leaves on the highways' merger into the grey skyline of Niederösterreich are swept aside, Ramon walks a lonely path that leads him back to his mother and through whom he settles his score to move on with - or rather, attain a necessary raison d'etre for his sheer existence in - this cruel life. Breathing in the last remnants of life from the corpse of the people he carries and of the victim of his childhood (and of his own childhood), Ramon introduces us into a world of the living dead (not in a Shaun of the Dead style) who "wish little because that is what they can only achieve". As we gaze through the Viennese skyline in the closing scene, I sense that Ramon will have a lot more out of the remainder of his life than the total of everyone else we've seen in the movie.

Atmen is Austrian actor Karl Markovics's first attempt behind the camera and he delivers well. The film went on to win the ‘Europa Cinemas Label’ as best European film in the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes in 2011. The bleak atmosphere is set perfectly by the overarching grey tones of a wintry Austrian setting. Markovics often uses static shots with double or multiple vantage points, with actors or objects delicately moving within the third of the frame, leaving the audience with great instances of slow-motion photography. The score is delicate and the overall soundtrack fits the picture perfectly. Thomas Schubert, who, according to IMDB, has only appeared on an episode of a TV-series other than this film does a great job in portraying the dispossessed youth, spending his time on the streets of Vienna, the swimming pool and his cell in the youth prison whose walls are carved with names of Turkish people. Naturally, for me, the scenes from IKEA in Shopping City Süd where I was last Christmas buying furniture for a Viennese flat I was once invited to move to, of Bhf. Praterstern where I shortly after left a city to which I have affiliated myself so much to over the last 3 years, and to which I have no idea when I would return to and the rail tracks crossing Gürtel and Mödling bei Wien had very significant and sensitive meanings that made the film a bit more personal, too.

Atmen is the 2nd Austrian film I saw this year. In February, on a spontaneous loner's trip to Berlin for the closing weekend of Berlinale, I got to see the equally brilliant Spanien by Anja Salomonowitz, another young, talented filmmaker in her early career. Never mind the low ratings on IMDb: it turns out only a few people have seen it and they may not yet be fond of the raw realism depicted in contemporary Austrian cinema. Supported by an excellent soundtrack by the genius composer Max Richter, Spanien follows the stories of 4 different people whose lives overlap through human trafficking, relief-painting, gambling and "immigrant-shopping". An undercover smuggling operation organisation in the disguise of a lending institution, a late night's tungsten-lit Edward Hopperesque bars with a few, desperate slot machines, a scarred woman's homely drawing table and her boiling kettle, and a deserted man's role-playing prostitute reflect the paths these individuals walk that is no less lonelier than of Roman's and no warmer than the cold streets near Potzdamer Platz on a late Berlinale Sunday evening. Yet, the recurring fate of loners towards togetherness through co-operation leaves a bittersweet warmth like the after taste of a sip of a cheap Inländer Rum.

Atmen and Spanien have been the only two Austrian films I have seen without the person who has gotten me accustomed to all things Austrian, including cinema. The last one we saw together, at the last year's London Film Festival in September was Michael, another debut by Markus Schleinzer, who portrays a victim of a society that has been shaken by such similar stories, the most famous of which has been the Josef Fritzl case. Another bang in-yer-face, and a nominee for Palme d'Or in 2011 where Atmen won the aforementioned award, Michael is a reality check, looming large on a 400-inch screen, to humanity. Wolfgang's innocence chills the viewer more than the landscapes of Tyrolean mountain resorts, covered deep into snow that Michael visits with his friends, while the former is locked up in his cellar, biding his time to plan his exit strategy.

By this point, I may have gotten accustomed to a type of Austrian cinema rather well, not to get depressed or shocked by some of its attributes. Having loved certain aspects of independent cinema through the likes of The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (of which, one chapter of the three that make  up the film is called "Breathing"), I should rather say I got a late introduction to it. However my personal connection with the country may be, I look forward to seeing more of the likes of Atmen... of course, a fine London's evening with good company, wine and food will certainly help the overall equation.