Review: ATMs (2011)

ATMs (2011)

Directed by: Karl Markovics | 94 minutes | drama | Actors: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Georg Friedrich, Gerhard Liebmann, Stefan Matousch, Luna Mijovic, Georg Veitl, Klaus Rott, Michael Duregger, Elena Dörfler, Magdalena Kronschläger, Reinhold G. Moritz, Martin Oberhauser, David Oberkogler, Robert Putzinger, Peter Raffalt, Gabriela Schmoll, Stephanie Taussig, Werner Wultsch

Can you get a second chance as a (youth) criminal? Can you get rid of the terrible stigma attached to a crime? How do you deal with your guilt? Can you survive in society if you don’t have family or friends? Those are the themes that come up in ‘Atmen’, a modest, well-acted and rather sad film by Karl Markovics from 2011.

‘Atmen’ is carried by the young Thomas Schubert, who plays the role of Roman Kogler. Roman is in a juvenile detention center after a terrible incident (explained later in the film), but is allowed to go out on probation after serving half of his sentence. Roman could also have been called Remy, because he is almost alone in the world. Only his probation officer Walter Fakler (Gerhard Liebmann) tries to guide Roman somewhat, but hey, that’s his job too.
To qualify for early release, Roman must demonstrate that he can take care of himself outside the prison walls. That is not easy for him, making contact with others is difficult, especially now that he carries his crime and imprisonment with him. He gets a job at a morgue in Vienna, where he is bullied and humiliated from the start. This makes the unpleasant task of picking up dead people, washing and dressing them extra difficult. At one point, when he finds a dead woman lying on a cold store sled with the same last name Kogler, he thinks it might be his mother. That turns out not to be the case, after which he starts looking for his real mother, to find out why she ever gave him up for adoption.

It’s not really a story to cheer about, with many drab pictures of the old Habsburg capital Vienna, but what it certainly isn’t is predictable. In Hollywood, Roman would meet a cute girl, learn life wisdom through his ups and downs, and eventually become happy. Things are always slightly different here, which makes the film infinitely richer, more realistic and simply better. The screenplay is cleverly put together and skilfully avoids all clichés. Transporting the deceased—an unconventional choice in itself—offers Roman opportunities to reflect on his own life and what he would like to do with it. ‘Atmen’ has top-class acting, not least from Schubert as the tortured novel. A great achievement, because not only had Schubert never played in a movie before, he is also in just about every scene in the film. A very heavy responsibility, but he acts like he’s never done anything else before and his acting is flawless. The taciturn sullenness he radiates is camouflage for a vulnerable and insecure boy, and Schubert manages to convey both of them completely convincingly at the same time. The first towards bullying or indifferent colleagues from the morgue and the second towards the viewer of the film.

The title ‘Atmen’ (breathing) resonates on several levels (those who see the film will understand why). The camerawork is static and cold, which works very well here, given the subject matter and the isolation and loneliness in which Roman finds himself. For director Markovics it was also his first film, but in the director’s chair. He was best known as an actor in his native Austria, but delivered a very creditable debut with ‘Atmen’, which was nominated or won prizes at international film festivals, including the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for the “European Films” category. Markovics was also able to add a number of “Best Film” awards to his palmares. The portrayal of lead actor Thomas Schubert also did not pass by, he won the prize for “Best Actor” at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

A must see, which, despite the heavy subject matter and the sober tone, does not allow the tragedy to make any sense and yet contains hopeful elements. ‘Atmen’ is captivating from start to finish and a deserved winner of so many awards.

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