Directed by Sebastian Schipper
Produced by Catherine Baikousis and nine others
Written by Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Elke Frederik Schulz
Music by Nils Frahm
Cinematography by Sturia Brandth Grøvlen
In German and English with English subtitles
Adopt Films DVD – interlibrary loan (2:18)
Anytime you hear someone talking about Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015), I’ll bet it takes less than 20 seconds for them to mention the film’s “gimmick,” which is Schipper’s decision to shoot the 138-minute movie in a single take. I’ll admit it: I’ve presented the film to people this way. I suppose depending upon how you talk to people about it determines how much importance you give to the gimmick. Is it really a gimmick? Or is it a device?
It really doesn’t make that much difference. If the single-shot technique is a gimmick, it soon wears off simply because we’re caught up in the film. The first time we see the thin, pixie-like Victoria (Laia Costa, right) she’s dancing with lots of other people at a Berlin club. A group of local guys get thrown out of the club for having no money to pay their way in, but outside, Victoria meets them: Sonne (Frederick Lau, left), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fub (Max Mauff). They seem like harmless guys, but we’re not entirely sure. Victoria speaks mostly to Sonne while his buddies engage in some mostly low-key shenanigans. Victoria is Spanish, but she’s working at a coffee shop in Berlin. She knows very little German, but her English is good, which works just fine since Sonne’s English – while not as good as Victoria’s – is passable. The same goes for his buddies.
These scenes of Victoria getting to know the guys lasts for nearly 45 minutes, which may seem like an eternity for those waiting for something to happen. Something does happen, and you might think in a film with one vulnerable young woman and four guys that you have it figured out, but you probably don’t. There’s a tremendous scene involving Victoria and Sonne in the coffee shop before the shop opens. I won’t tell you what it is, but it’s key to understanding Victoria’s character.
It’s also important to know that while the Germans understand everything Victoria says, she understands almost none of what they’re saying when they speak German. Yet she understands the guys’ inflection, tone, and body language, but mostly she recognizes and understands their fear.
Things take a serious turn when Sonne gets an urgent call from one of his friends. I won’t disclose the purpose of the call, but Sonne is forced to make a decision – and so is Victoria – and there’s no turning back. At this point, the “gimmick” (or “device”) becomes indispensable. Without it, we’re watching a suspenseful film; with it, we’re watching Victoria’s life unfold before our eyes. Costa is in almost every moment of the film and her character goes through incredible events in a short amount of time. There are no takes, no cuts, so there’s no time to get geared up for these events. The film is all about how Costa’s character sees everything going on around her, who she is, who she decides she’s going to be, and the consequences of the actions she takes. It’s not called Victoria for nothing.
Victoria is essentially a character study disguised as a crime picture. (More specifically, it’s a heist picture. The film closed the recent Noir City 15 film noir festival, whose theme this year was “The Big Knockover.”) We’re impressed, even astonished, that Schipper can pull off the one-take trick, but what’s even more remarkable is the writing of the film and performance of Costa. We’re constantly thinking about her, especially early on when we have the time to do so. Why is she in Berlin? What was she doing before this? Is she running from something? What?
According to the review of the UK edition of the film on blu-ray.com, much of the film was unscripted. Schipper made sure the actors knew their characters, made sure they knew where they were supposed to be (the film contains 22 different locations), then allowed them to ad-lib much of the dialogue.
Schipper is quoted at ScreenPrism as saying, “Once Laia had that notion about Victoria being an idealist, she was free. From there we could create stuff and throw her into situations — her buying a shot, her dancing, her wandering the street. We didn’t need a script, we could just go to these different scenes and have Laia explore them in character. When she’s dancing, she dances alone — that tells you something. She’s in the bar and she goes to hit on someone — that tells you something. It was just filling these setups with honest character moments.”
If you want to see Victoria for the “gimmick,” by all means, see it for the gimmick. But look beyond the gimmick for a wonderful performance and an amazing cinematic experience. And don’t be surprised if the film causes you to look at every other film differently, which may not necessarily be a bad thing.
The UK Region B Artificial Eye Blu-ray of Victoria received a much better rating than the U.S. Kino Lorber edition, so if you have a region-free Blu-ray player, it looks like the UK version is the way to go. (Plus it’s cheaper than the U.S. release.) Hopefully this film will be shown at other Noir City venues this year, which is undoubtedly the best way to see it.
Photos: Curzon Artificial Eye, Film Fan Travel, Roger Ebert, Wenduo, ScreenPrism, Indiewire