A Journey of Self-Reflection
Director, Karl Markovics, discusses his latest film, which tells the story of 19-year-old Roman Kogler, who threatened with a life behind bars, takes on a probation job where he must confront the truth about his past.
In mainstream cinema, the traditional narrative curve introduces the protagonist in an ordinary situation before a series of extraordinary events combine to disrupt their existence and define their future character. We are usually left, especially in the realms of Hollywood, with a neat conclusion, the arc of the story fully travelled and the assumption that the character’s life will continue as we, the audience, have left them. This systematic method of storytelling – character establishment, introduction of conflict, character transformation and the resolution of troubles – extends through history from biblical stories through to Shakespeare’s comedies, and to the popular fare that floods our cinemas today.
In light of this status quo, the concept of focusing on characters after the defining event of their lives is fresh and innovative. Seeing a person in a situation and being unsure of how they got there, but certain that it will substantially affect their future prospects creates an uneasy rapport. It’s a new way of looking at the traditional narrative arc, and something that the popular Austrian actor, Karl Markovics, adeptly navigates in his directorial debut Atmen.
Directly translated as “breathing”, Atmen depicts the daily grind of Roman Kogler, a solitary 19-year-old living in a young offenders’ institute and approaching an important parole hearing. Insular and cold, Roman exists in a silent impersonal world while his inmates laugh, joke, play cards and water polo together within the confines of the institution’s walls. While Roman and his fellow young offenders sleep under lock and key in their individual cells, they are free to socialise within communal areas and to take up external employment as part of their rehabilitation. We meet Roman having been dismissed from a number of these job opportunities and frustrating his patient counsellor, Walter, who sees no prospect of a sympathetic judge choosing to release him (and little hope for his social integration if he were to be released). But Roman’s latest foray into the world of work is an apprenticeship at the local morgue, and the calm, respectful atmosphere, coupled with the quiet camaraderie that evolves with his colleagues at the hands of such bizarre circumstances, establishes a transformation in Roman who sticks at this role longer than any other. On collecting a female corpse that shares his surname one day, Roman begins a journey of self-reflection, and the audience one of discovery, as the darker side of Roman’s past is gradually revealed.
Passing through care homes throughout his childhood, and never knowing the mother who put him up for adoption, Roman was a difficult, brooding and isolated child prone to bursts of temper that escalated towards the manslaughter of another boy his own age. Roman has been institutionalised all his life and, with no fully formed relationships, is awkward and uncommunicative even with his counsellor who is representative of the many figures who have flitted in and out of his life over the years. Roman’s discovery of the Kogler corpse leads him to track down his own mother in an attempt to discover why she sentenced him to this life without family ties.
Atmen undertakes an innovative piece of storytelling and is a well thought through debut from Markovics, who starred in The Counterfeiters, which won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Academy Awards. For him, Atmen is an extension of his earlier career and he distinguishes between the two roles by explaining that “acting is the ability to create different characters. Writing /directing means to create different worlds.” While his stories and screenplays have been in development for a long time, it was only at his wife’s encouragement that he sought to put Atmen into production, saying: “Already as a child while playing together with others I created a world on my own and invited my friends to join me. In several ways I came back to this.”
And while he bases his career in storytelling, Markovics is undoubtedly a visual thinker. The cinematography of Atmen creates a very specific world, one that is at once claustrophobic and artificially over-lit, and through which Roman’s inherent fear of suffocation (he loses one job when his employer tries to fit a safety mask to his face and he has a panic attack when pulling his sweatshirt over his head) gradually comes to the fore. Little by little, Roman’s character becomes more animated and his personality grows as the audience recognises these visual quirks: “More than a coming of age story, Atmen tells a coming into life story. I wanted to describe Roman’s ‘inner prison’ and slowly reveal the reasons for this. His life is like an empty balloon when air is slowly blown in.”
The specific visual reference points of Roman’s world become central to the narrative – the stark white walls of his cell, the graffiti across the door, the cool old-fashioned interior of the mortuary changing room and the deathly still grandeur of the homes of the deceased all reflect elements of the story and of Roman’s character evolution. Through these, he recognises these elements of personality that have always been within him, but which he has shut out in his own self-isolation. But while the sets are very specific and well designed, Atmen’s Director of Photography (Martin Gschlacht) created what Markovics describes as “an environment in which the viewers’ eyes could decide where to look instead of moving the camera and deciding what to see … because the drama happens inside the characters much more than outside.” The technique is strengthened by newcomer Thomas Schubert’s highly acclaimed performance throughout the duration of the film. This concept of the visual can be traced right back to Markovics’ storytelling process as he explains: “All my stories start with a single image that appears in my head all of a sudden.”
In creating this feature-length story from one initial visual image, Markovics explains that Atmen began with an image where “an old lady lies dead on her living-room floor. I tried to figure out which piece from which story this image could be. And little by little it happened to become this story.” With a year’s research into the inner workings of both a real-life morgue and a youth detention centre, Markovics created two coherent, representative worlds of very real, everyday tasks and situations within two areas that are, more often than not, completely hidden from view for most of the world.
Aside from the professionals working in these areas, ordinary citizens only experience their confines at times of disruption and distress and so they become extraordinary places, but Markovics’ film seeks to emphasise their ordinariness. It’s an exercise in social realism with a twist, repeatedly emphasising the mundane and the everyday in areas that few members of the audience have ever experienced: “I was attracted to the idea that there is a character who has no skills for life and who moves from one social taboo zone into the other (from prisoner in a youth detention centre to worker in the Vienna city morgue). And against all odds Roman succeeds.”
This feeds right back to the unusual nature of Roman’s experience up until this point; how as a child in care and without a family, he has grown up with no context and no history. Through this abandonment it is as if he hasn’t thought to create a personality of his own, to integrate with others and discover where his place is in society, because he knows so little of it. The turning point comes at the mortuary because “facing death opens his consciousness and awakens his desires. Life is short and humans are mortal. This is a simple cognition but a very important one for Roman. He starts asking questions about his heritage for the first time.” Families occupy an ambiguous territory in Atmen and repeatedly fall short of what Markovics describes as “a unique concept of ideal family in our minds.” Roman’s estranged mother is unrepentant at giving him away and blithely claims “it’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” while Walter’s petty marital spats create a dystopian notion of the nuclear family away from the film’s main story. But family (and its absence) is central to the narrative because of the way in which it forms and defines us: “In reality we often suffer from it, but at the same time we need it because family is proof of our existence.”
Atmen approaches the issue of crime from a rare angle, exploring the aftermath rather than the event itself. As a result we are immediately sympathetic to Roman in a manner that we wouldn’t be if we’d witnessed his crime in a manner that inevitably questions the efficiency of Western systems of justice and rehabilitation. But Markovics denies any commentary on the Austrian judicial system: “I just wanted to tell a simple story about how pain and loss are conserved in our minds, especially when they happen to us at a very early age. And how much good luck and sensibility from fellow human beings it takes to compensate it.” On the European social realist tradition with which Atmen engages, he nonchalantly rejects labels that may stand in the way of a good story and, in spite of his extensive research process, the film’s fiction is emphasised: “Concerning ‘social realism’ I have to say that this is only a ‘mask’ for telling a sort of contemporary ‘fairytale’. It is not the world as it is, but the world as it could be. I made up a series of coincidences because I wanted my main character to succeed against all odds.”
While it’s a long way from a fairytale, the more poetic and fantastical elements of Atmen are most obvious in the repetition of a water motif throughout the film. In his recreation time in the detention centre, Roman rejects races and water polo with his peers in favour of immersing himself below the surface for minutes at a time. This peculiarity does not go unnoticed and it seems to form Roman’s initial foray into creating a persona for himself. It’s reflective of adolescent posturing, the way in which we strive to cultivate an individual quirk in our teenage years as a way to find our own place in the world that we live in, but it also introduces a contemplative pace to the film: “Water literally brings a new element into the story. It slows everything.” And yet this beautiful and anti-realist cinematography remains rooted in reality and Markovics’ research: “There are three scenes in the pool and each of them shows Roman’s relation to the outside world. I never would have made this up, but when I did my research in the original youth detention centre, I found out that there is a pool and I was fascinated by the idea of telling Roman’s inner situation and his development within this setting.”
At the heart of the film lies the concept of redemption, and the need for Roman to confront his past and create a new place for himself in the as-yet -unknown outer world. What roots Atmen firmly in cinematic naturalism is the subtlety with which this realisation is achieved: “As we can find no absolute answers in our life, there is also no absolute redemption. The only thing we can do is take small steps. At the beginning Roman is static and trapped in every sense – he is in prison but also trapped in himself. Then step-by-step he makes his first efforts to find his way into life.” Visiting the grave of his victim with his colleagues, Roman metaphorically ends the chapter of his life as a young offender, and more significantly ends his institutionalised existence. While the results of Roman’s parole trial are never made explicit, his good record at work seems to encourage his counsellor and we witness the beginnings of Roman in the outside world, politely (though silently) taking guidance from his older colleagues and awkwardly befriending a young American tourist in spite of their language barrier. Markovics sees his film as leading Roman to the growing insight “that missed opportunities cannot be made up and that past deeds cannot be corrected, however much we may wish to. All that remains is the life we lead now and the way we do it.”