Director: Sebastian Schipper
Based on a Story by: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski
Running Time: 138 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Hype can be a dangerous thing. When you hear too much praise for a film you're almost destined to be disappointed. Very few films can live up to the expectations mounted through countless five star reviews and personal recommendations. Sebastian Schipper's Victoria is one film I'd read several glowing reviews for and heard friends rave about surrounding its cinematic release here in the UK. With Curzon Artificial Eye releasing the film on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, I got my hands on a screener to finally watch the film for myself and I can safely say it has lived up to my very high expectations (although I think I might have given the film 5 stars if I'd have watched it 'cold').
Victoria follows (quite literally) the titular character (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman living in Berlin, as she leaves a nightclub and befriends Sonne (Frederick Lau), a 'native' Berliner. Blatantly flirting with her, Sonne shows her the after-club night life with his three male friends. Victoria is a fairly innocent 'good' girl, but these boys are wild and mischievous, breaking into cars and stealing beers. Victoria seems to enjoy joining them and embracing this 'bad boy' attitude, but as the crimes they're involved in suddenly get much more serious, she realises she's in too deep, but is forced to go along with it.
If you've read anything about this film I imagine you're aware of the fact that the film is presented entirely as one long, unbroken shot. It seems to be the film's main selling point, particularly as this is no 'hidden' cut job like Birdman. No digital trickery made this merely look like a one shot, real time experience. It was all done for real. Supposedly it took 3 attempts, but the crew eventually managed to keep everything working as it should for the fairly hefty running time of the film.
Many have described this continuous take technique as a gimmick and I'm sure it helped market the film and it's not vital to the plot or anything like that. However, I think the one shot style added a lot to the experience. For one, it reminds you that this is all happening in real time, adding to the naturalism. It also means you never get to escape the frightening situation Victoria is thrown into - you're there for the full ride. Speaking of rides, the camera is ever moving and follows the characters all over the city. The scenes aren't stuck in a room or two to make life easier for the cameraman. The camera gets into cars, goes up elevators and climbs up small rooftop staircases. As well as making this incredibly difficult to shoot perfectly in one take (which is why the camera op gets the first credit at the end of the film), it also gives the film a great energy through the constant motion.
There's so much more to love and appreciate about the film though. One thing that stood out from early on in the film is how wonderfully naturalistic the performances are. The script was reportedly only 12 pages long, with only story beats present, meaning the cast had to fill in the gaps with regards to dialogue. This means the socialising at the start of the film in particular is wonderfully genuine. The characters are very human too. Sonne's friends could have easily just been boneheaded thugs, but their believable banter and a couple of key scenes where we get to know them better help give them warmth.
Speaking of getting to know the characters, that brings me to the film's structure and length. On hearing that the film was an intense thriller, I was surprised to find that the first hour is spent developing the characters and merely hanging around the city. This might sound like a turn off, but these scenes are done so well that I didn't care and could have happily sat through a whole film of that. It also allows you to truly care about the characters and their plight, as well as help justify Victoria's inclusion in the gang's later activities.
When the thriller elements of the film do kick in you do have to suspend disbelief a bit though, as, without wanting to spoil things, the work the boys are ordered to do is thrown at them a bit too suddenly for my liking. I was a bit dubious about Victoria going along with it too, although she is drugged up at that point which helps justify her actions. This big shift at the half way point will be a bit of a make or break point for viewers perhaps and is why I didn't give the film absolute top marks. However, once I accepted what was going on, I strapped in and enjoyed the intense ride that follows.
One final aspect of the film I liked and wanted to mention before tying this review up is its use of language. Although it's a German film, most of the dialogue is in English as Victoria doesn't speak German, so Sonne and the others speak to her in English. What's interesting is that the boys and others around them do still talk to each other in German for the most part. This means Victoria is often lost as to what's going on. I've read somewhere (in Sight and Sound I think, but don't quote me) that the director considered having the film available outside of Germany without subtitles and it may have possibly been screened as such in some places. I think this would have been quite an effective experience (and you can play the film like that if you wish on Blu-Ray/DVD), putting the audience in Victoria's shoes as she is plunged into this dangerous world.
Overall it's an incredible film. Technically astonishing but also emotionally satisfying, intense, thrilling, utterly engrossing and wonderfully performed. Maybe that's overselling it and creating unwanted hype, but it managed to live up to it in my mind.
Victoria is out on 23rd May on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Curzon Artificial Eye. I saw the Blu-ray version and the film looks and sounds great.
For special features you get an audio commentary with director Sebastian Schipper, casting scenes and a camera test video. I haven't had chance to listen to the commentary, but I fully intend to at some point as I'd love to hear more about its production. It's in German so it's a commentary you'll have to watch rather than listen to (I tend to put them on whilst doing something else on my laptop, which is why I haven't got around to it yet). The casting and test videos are fairly interesting inclusions, but I'd rather a making of documentary to be honest. It's nice to see some added extras included though as many distributors don't bother these days.