JAMIE MATHIESON thinks you should hold your breath for this moving portrayal of young lives gone wrong.

Atmen Breathing Film german Jamie Mathieson Karl Markovics Shawshank Thomas Schubert youth

Directed by Karl Markovics

[rating: 4/5]

‘Hell is other people’, quotes a hearse driver in Breathing (Atmen), an Austrian film that is morbid, touching and ultimately affirming. I assume he’d just come from the Mahal, or maybe had his comedy show reviewed by The Tab.

Yet this film confounds Sartre: Hell is in our heads. It’s all of our own making, and isolation can be as draining as forced companionship. Guilt, regret, remorse, and the inability to do what seems to come so naturally to other people, because you’re physically unable, and mentally blocked. Breathing – and trying to breathe, at the bottom of a swimming pool – is the film’s chosen metaphor. Guilt and regret and anger and sadness can be suffocating.

I don’t really want to give a synopsis of the film, because it unfolds so slowly, so gently and tenderly revealing the information about our main character that explains what is, at first, inexplicable. So it would spoil it if you knew anything about his past at all. It’s wonderful to see a film that makes its audience wait and gives so little away, not in a contrived way, but because it treats us with respect: and when a film respects you, you respect it back.

How all of us feel in exam term…

So this is all I’ll say: it’s about Roman (Thomas Schubert), a troubled young man, and he’s really troubled. Actually troubled. Now, in Cambridge, we’re used to encountering fuck-ups: people emotionally neutered by boarding schools; isolated by their intelligence; or who are just a bit mean, doing as much as they can to prevent other people from being themselves.

But as much as this place might get us down, it’s a bubble. And we’ve all got it pretty good. There are a lot of people out there who’ve had sticks stuck in the bicycle spokes of their young lives, and Breathing captures the bitter frustration of those who have fucked up, and know it, as movingly as Shawshank. Roman is not the only one who feels this way: minor characters are fleshed out and kept away from stereotype, are given histories, and are brought to life by a consistently excellent cast.

The film’s naturalism and realism is, at times, a little forced. The cinematography is straight outta film school and there are several establishing shots that are unnecessarily long and may leave your attention wandering. But this is a film of the highest quality, and a superb debut from director Markovics and 19 year old Schubert, both of whom look set – as we hope Roman is too – for a bright future.