«Roman is a daytime-release prisoner. He is given a task and must then return to his cell the same evening. What I was most
interested in was this dramatic arc and the motif of movement it envelops. Roman moves from one area of social taboo to another,
creating a field of tension in which I saw a great deal of potential for a story.» Karl Markovics on his first feature film Breathing.
What was your primary reason for switching from interpretive narration to creative, filmic narration?
KARL MARKOVICS: I always knew that I wanted to do more than just being an actor. Acting was actually a detour. Acting is simpler in the sense
that, in the beginning, youre left to your own devices and you can lead a parallel life within a given framework. That
was extremely exciting and fulfilling for a long time, and it still is, so much so that I havent had enough time or
felt the urge to admit that the most important things missing: what Ive always wanted to do, real creativity,
creating something from nothing. For a long time the greatest obstacle was my own perfectionism. With all the ideas for scripts
in various stages of completion that have piled up inside me, Ive never been good enough to satisfy myself. In the end
it was my wife who said, just finish something and have the courage to show it to someone instead of just brushing it aside
from the beginning.
BREATHING represents a basic need and is also synonymous with freedom. The prison guard says to Roman: You grew up in
a foster home, you spent your entire childhood there, didnt you? Did you feel a need to tell the story of a young
adult who started off in life with extreme limitations?
KARL MARKOVICS: To be honest, thats what it turned into. At first I didnt intend to do nearly as much with my story as the story
was then able to do itself. That sounds a little esoteric, but when you have a good story to tell, it speaks to you and tells
itself. My original idea was banal. In my case all script ideas begin with an image, and the first image I had for Breathing
gave birth to the curiosity about making a film involving morticians. I wanted to make an extremely incidental, everyday sort
of film about people who have to deal with death in their work as service providers. Of course, that alone wasnt a story,
and thats why it was predestined to end up like many of my ideas for scripts: on paper, without anything ever happening
with it. But a short time after that a young man knocked on the door of my mind?thats what I mean when I say that a
story can assert its rights. It was a kind of Pirandello experience, like in Six Characters in Search of an Author, with a
character showing up and saying, I want to play a role this. And then you take responsibility for the story, and
I must do everything I can to do justice to it.
How would you characterize this young man who pushed his way into the story?
KARL MARKOVICS: It was about a person who really didnt have things that bad, who learned to deal with his life (childhood in a foster
home, juvenile detention center), which we dont find out until near the end of the film. He didnt have it bad
in those places. Hes a loner, but people leave him in peace, he has everything he needs, because he has everything hes
familiar with. Still, he develops a sense that although he doesnt really have any specific emotional pressure, there
must be more. It requires a great deal of courage to jump into that, but Romans reaction is at first determined by defiance.
The decision to work at a mortuary triggers something that offers a prospect for the future, even if its fairly dreary.
You show extremely realistic worlds in BREATHING life in prison, the world of work, work processes and the power structures
involved, two worlds that are for the most part shut off from the publics eyes. Was it your intention to show these
worlds on the basis of how society considers them taboo?
KARL MARKOVICS: Yes, I was interested in these two fields of tension and the motif of movement between them. Romans a day-release prisoner,
he has something to take care of and must then return to his cell the same evening. He moves from one area of social taboo
to another, creating a field of tension where I saw a great deal of potential for a story, where I realized right away that
it required specialized research. At times research is overrated, but in this case it was absolutely necessary, particularly
in light of my own experience, that Ive never seen a dead body. That was one of the most memorable experiences of all,
including for the story. Because I knew that whatever I expected of my main character, I would have to expect of myself. That
triggered a great deal.
Theres a great deal of speechlessness, and taciturn individuals, in Breathing. Is that the reason you chose this narrative
technique with clear images?
KARL MARKOVICS: That was the great challenge from the very beginning. As it involved something where language reaches its limits, from the
beginning I wanted to create an extremely barren environment in terms of communication. It was important to me that an impression
of being incidental was always present, and that, for example, long passages of silence arent perceived as being too
pregnant with meaning, because there isnt much talking beforehand either. Whats then said, however, always has
Many such passages have been put in the background visually while an everyday object dominates the foreground.
KARL MARKOVICS: That too was done so we didnt lose the incidental character we wanted. Even though we work with great metaphors in almost
every frame, including details such as the sand dial on the dead old womans table. Im very much in love with metaphors,
and I realized that they can only work when theyre added in passing, so that you could even miss them, and that shouldnt
be a major problem. In any case, they should never really be regarded as metaphors.
Some of the most beautiful metaphors are the shots at the swimming pool, which repeatedly play a role in the form of going
under, coming back up, swimming on the surface, breathing correctly, etc. How do you see these water images, why were they
KARL MARKOVICS: I originally thought about running, because I wanted to establish the theme of breathing in prison. I asked myself what young
inmates do when theyre not in their cell or the workshop. I wouldnt have dared to make up swimming, but while
doing research at Gerasdorf I found out theres a pool there, and then it became clear that it would have to be a swimming
pool, even if I had doubts about whether the images might resemble scenes from a sanatorium. The water brings another element
into play, and breathing takes on meaning in a completely different way. Its necessary to get as much air as possible,
and if you want to stay under water, you have to ration it, you have to be able to be alone with yourself, even though youre
surrounded by others. Establishing the theme of the isolated individual in a group was important. In a swimming pool I can
show how Roman does his thing without there being a great deal of interaction with others.
Can you say something about how you developed Breathings visual grammar together with Martin Gschlacht?
KARL MARKOVICS: I could talk about that all day. The film became what it is together with Martin. I had certain ideas about the visual character,
but they werent nearly as concrete. The time I spent with Martin working on the solution was for me the most fulfilling
part of the creation process. Scriptwritings difficult and involves a great deal of doubt; research is interesting,
but often time intensive. When working on the solution, on the other hand, I had an insight involving my own story at least
once a day, because for the first time I realized what kind of potential it has and how little was necessary in many cases
to tell something precisely. I was much more stuck in my reflexes stemming from the way I was accustomed to looking at things,
and in many cases Martin opened my eyes as to how differently, how much more simply and precisely you can tell a story, because
the storys language benefits in terms of its incidental nature and creation of tension in a relative uneventfulness,
though without seeming indifferent. The cinematography concept works without ever becoming obviously subjective. There isnt
a single shot where you could say that were seeing something with the main characters eyes. Were right next
to him, but its always our point of view, were accompanying him. I didnt choose the medium of film because
I wanted to see my first film in theaters, but because it needs the screen and CinemaScope for its strong images.
How did you approach such processes as casting and working with actors as a director? How did the search for the protagonists
KARL MARKOVICS: I couldnt cast an actor before choosing the lead. He would be decisive for the rest of the cast. At first Nicole Schmied
put out ads at various schools, in subway newspapers and so on. Of about 300 candidates who showed up at the first date we
picked Thomas Schubert in two more rounds. I was looking for a non-professional actor because I didnt want a 22-year-old
acting-school dropout playing an 18 year old. I wanted an 18 year old whos still a child at certain moments. There were
of course doubts when the decision was made, as to whether hed be able to supply everything the role required. He knew
what he was in for, which we didnt: 30 days of shooting, and hed have to be on set every one of them. Theres
not a single scene and only few shots without him. Im that much happier that it turned out so well.
Your narrative style is greatly indebted to realism. In terms of the storytellings economy more than camera technique,
BREATHING reminds me of the Dardenne brothers. Do you agree with this association, and which other film storytellers have
KARL MARKOVICS: Impressed is a better way to put it. The Dardenne brothers certainly have. I agree with that only to a point. Basically, my
way of telling a story is completely different, even if in terms of nuances only. My films narrative style because
of its stringency, the use of Cinemascope, the colors, the way music is employed is much more dramatic, even if that
isnt really obvious. From the very beginning I wanted to give the narrative a framework which constantly reminds the
viewer that its a story, even though it remains close to reality. A story that could have turned out much differently
in real life. Roman is extremely lucky, there are a few coincidences, probably more than would have happened all at once in
reality. The reference image for me is the final shot, where you leave the story entirely and we have the camera rise up weightlessly.
The Dardenne brothers would never do it like that. What I wanted to do was play with both elements - the fictional narrative
and the reality in which the storys set. I didnt want my story to become completely real.
In the beginning of this interview you talked about other scripts and ideas that you might make into films. Do I understand
correctly, that realism will not necessarily crystallize as the tenor of your film narrative?
KARL MARKOVICS: Realism is the absolute basis, the material represents eighty percent, but I dont want realism exclusively. Stories
of simple people is what I want, they represent the source of my material. Thats the environment I come from, where
I feel comfortable, and I think that its underrepresented in a certain way. That might sound silly, because a great
deal of Austrian cinemas set in social fringe groups. However, I think that simple people are underrepresented when
the goal is bringing them into film: by that I mean acknowledging the fact that they look good in closeups, not being afraid
of finely balanced lighting, placing them in front of an attractive background, framing them in a great way, and capturing
them on film with a relatively complex camera movement. Not consistently in a thorough way, but at certain moments that I
consider special. I think that this kind of encounter in the opportunities offered by film are still interesting.
Interview: Karin Schiefer