Germany (2015) Dir. Sebastian Schipper
In 2002 Russian director Alexander Sokurov presented us with Russian Ark, a 96 minute film reportedly shot in one take. In 2014 Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu tried to follow suit with the Oscar winning Birdman, although it was patently obvious it was really a series of one-take shots. Now German actor and director Sebastian Schipper has given this idea a go with Victoria.
The titular character (Laia Costa) is a Spanish girl recently relocated to Berlin. Whilst leaving a night club, she encounters for men – Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Fuss (Max Mauff) and Blinker (Burak Yigit) – who had been refused entry to the club. The boisterous quartet offer to walk Victoria home which she accepts but they end up stealing some beers and smoking joints instead.
When Victoria leaves to go to work at a café Sonne goes with her but the others show up a little later and in a panic to have Sonne go with them. Few minutes later they return with Fuss in an incapacitated state and in desperation confide in Victoria their plans and ask her to be a part of them.
There is good news and bad news about this film. The good news is that the one take objective seems to have been achieved which makes this a marvel to behold. It is so well done that we forget this “gimmick”, so to speak, and we are so absorbed in the action and story that we no longer notice it. Another consideration is that Schipper sets his story over multiple locations, internal and external, and cameraman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen doesn’t drop a step for the duration of this 138 minute take.
Yes, that is 138 minutes, some forty minutes longer than Russian Ark and apparently it took three attempts to get it right, with a jump cut edited version as Plan B in case Schipper couldn’t secure the funding. Shot between 4:30am and 7:00 am, Grøvlen is right in the thick of the action yet his presence is barely noticeable, slipping seamlessly and imperceptibly between the cast and the surroundings, a credit to his and Schipper’s co-ordination in this project.
And so to the bad news. This film didn’t need to be as long as it is, with the first hour being largely uneventful and a bit of a slog to sit through. The plot kicks off in earnest at the 64 minute mark after we’ve watched Victoria and Sonne awkwardly bond following the time spent with the whole gang acting like unruly booze and dope fuelled yobs.
Things slow down a little later in the film too, and the ending feels protracted in this writer’s opinion, although this may have to give the cast some downtime after the heavy stuff without stopping. But, as this is a one shot, real time deal, this is reflective of the ebbs and flows of life so perhaps this is a churlish cavil.
What did hamper my enjoyment was the regular problem of no subtitles for us hard of hearing people on this Blu-ray for the English dialogue parts, which is prominent language. Because neither Victoria or the guys speak the other’s tongue they find middle ground with English; their thick native accents and delivery ranging from hushed tones, to screamed hysteria makes it difficult to understand them.
Luckily the Interwebz is on hand to provide the salient details missed during these exchanges, such as Victoria wanting to be a concert pianist, Boxer having done time for assault and the reason for the late night mission which changes the lives of everyone involved. Thankfully, the dialogue in key segments of the second hour are spoken in German while the visuals also convey enough to keep us involved and engrossed in the story.
And while it may not be an entirely original story it is an ambitious one to apply to a film being shot in one take, and again this is where this technique pays off in subverting the narrative by keeping the point of view to just one perspective. The real time experience does create some problems with lulls and inertia, yet it adds a sense of urgency to the more active moments, creating a genuine feeling of chaos which edited footage might not replicate so easily.
In presenting a film as real and natural, especially with no room for mistakes, you need a willing and competent cast to pull it off and Schipper can be thankful that he assembled a superb team of performers to help realise his aspiration for this film. It is difficult to single anyone out for individual praise as this was a true team effort, from the largely improved dialogue to the authentic and natural chemistry among the group.
That said, the denouement belongs solely to Laia Costa after assuredly taking the character of Victoria – a curious girl to say the least, in how she is so willing to implicitly trust four strange drunken men despite the glaring pitfalls obvious to the audience – on a real journey across the two plus hours, conveyed with a sense of perspicacity and empathy.
Whatever gripes there may be about the story, the characters, the run time or the lack of consideration for deaf people by Curzon Artificial Eye, it is the film’s technical achievements which is the main selling point and talking point and justifiably so. The commitment – and patience – of the cast and cameraman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is to be lauded and respected, even if you do think this is a one note gimmick to sell the film, while Schipper earns our kudos for conceiving this project and his meticulous planning.
Anyone who is on the fence about whether Victoria is a film for them might be in for a surprise once the second hour takes hold, but as a bold and challenging experiment, it should appeal to anyone with a deep interest in appreciating and experiencing cinema.