Victoria “is a crazy little flea-bitten bastard dog from the street with a big heart and soul” says director Sebastian Schipper when over the phone. He’s describing his film and is obviously being self-deprecating, or perhaps he’s unaware of the racehorse he has on his hands.
If anything Victoria is epic, a thrilling heist film that unfolds over the course of a single night, made all the more impressive because it was shot in a single take (in an athletic work of cinematic bravura by director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen). The plot centers on the title character, a young girl from Barcelona (played by Laia Costa) who meets a group of charming locals after partying in a Berlin club. When they invite her to join them at an after-party, she knows better but still lets them whisk her away. Soon she finds herself involved in a deadly sting captured with urgency by Schipper.
Victoria proved to be a sensation at the Berlin Film Festival where it won an award for its visionary camera work and swept the German Film Awards where it won prizes for Best Picture and Best Actress among others. Still, listening to Schipper talk about his film with wonder and a degree of modesty is rather refreshing. Having made a career for himself as a director with provocative works like Sometime in August and Absolute Giganten, and as an actor in films like The English Patient and Run Lola Run (he has Tom Tykwer among his frequent collaborators), Schipper is part of a new generation of German artists who use genre to tell stories that are both modern and timeless.
While many might approach Victoria as a curio for its technical prowess, they will be surprised to discover something else: this genre film abides by classic conventions while presenting them with a global cast (it was disqualified from competing in the Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars for its high percentage of English dialogues) and a riveting unsentimentality. It’s exciting, provocative, and subversive, but if you tell Schipper that he’ll rebuke, “but it’s still a crazy little dog”.
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I don’t remember the last time watching a movie gave me so much anxiety.
[laughs] Cool, yeeeah!
I thought Victoria was structured like a fairy tale; we have the little girl who should be going home but goes with the wolf instead.
I love that! I never really thought about it in those terms. Of course, we thought about the narrative a lot, but that never crossed my mind and it’s very true. Also, her whole background of having been trained in a conservatory, that is the life of a princess, her status, she’s beautiful, has a very precious life, but at the same time, it’s a harsh life. As in many fairy tales, she has all the beautiful little things, but she has no friends or anything like that.
Other than being a fairy tale so to speak, Victoria struck me as being very Bergman-esque in how we first meet Victoria in a moment of pure bliss at the club, and the last time we see her she is completely shattered. How did you cast Laia Costa and how you were able to push her so hard into this character?
When I saw pictures and some of the stuff she did, I was overwhelmed right away by her personality and smartness. My casting process is to work with people. Frederick and I met Laia in Barcelona and did some improvisation in my hotel room, I had them take the elevator to my room and pretend they’d met a few nights back and decided to spend the rest of their lives together, ran out of money and decided to rob a jewelry store and it went wrong, so now they were back to their room where they would get into a fight. They did that, and I saw they were amazing together. Basically that’s when I started to cast the movie.
Were you looking for someone who played the piano for the character of Victoria?
No, she’s not really playing it. She rehearsed a lot, but we had a real student do the piece for us, so it’s not some random recording. To find someone who could play the piano and is also capable of being an actress like that would’ve been very hard.
But I love that you asked that because I take it as a compliment because Laia worked so hard to make this scene believable. She had two hours of piano rehearsal pretty much all the time she was in Berlin.
Every time I’ve seen Frederick Lau in other movies he reminds me so much of a young Marlon Brando.
Yeah! That’s true.
Laia reminded me of classic beauties like Jean Seberg and Audrey Hepburn. Were you trying to recall classic films like Rebel Without a Cause when you cast them?
That’s also a great compliment. They’re both amazing, which goes beyond their ability to perform and act; it has more to do with their ability to go all in and show humanity and fears. They both have the talent to make that shine, what’s really deep down in their hearts. That was crucial for Victoria because I couldn’t put it together in post-production.
Shooting Victoria must’ve been crazy. Why would you impose such a difficult task on yourself?
This crazy enterprise? [laughs] We only change through pain, this is my fourth film and I felt a little bit like “How are we going to do something that will matter to us or to anyone?” and I’d been thinking about how we make movies. We work on the screenplay forever, then you have to shoot day after day after day, then you try to put it together in the editing room, and for some reason, just going through these movements I felt like “What am I missing?”
Also, I think that every film is always a reference to another film, things like The Bourne Identity or Goodfellas or 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I have a feeling that this DNA is always another film. Like you’re in a band and you decide to cover your favorite band; if you love the Cure you’ll do the Cure songs. If you love Creed, you’ll do Creed. Too bad not enough people love Creed. The cheesy expression that I can think of is that you need to take a leap of faith and do your own stuff. When you do it, that’s when great movies, music, and books happen.
When you’re not being a good boy you break free and create a band that’s going to risk something and you don’t care whether people will like it or not. I believe that feeling is in the DNA of art that people love. I don’t know if it’s part of the digital age, but we must ensure we don’t lose this. Things like being crazy, keeping it real, authentic, and radical have been kidnapped, and they’re being used to sell you products. I think we love stuff from the ’70s and ’60s because there’s something in between the lines that is not domesticated, that’s truly wild and inspiring.
You have a passion for cars; they’ve been essential in your previous films. Cars are also a symbol of German identity, and I couldn’t help but see some political subtext in the crucial part the car plays in Victoria.
It’s funny that you say that because I hated that car in the movie. I wanted to have a great car, and I got a minivan instead! They told me we had to use that one for the heist because it had doors on both sides, it was really cheap, and my production people said we could actually buy it. I asked if we could get a BMW but they said no. So I thought, fine, no fun toy this time. [laughs]
When people realize that Victoria is filmed in one single take, this could give a path to two outcomes. People see it as a hyper-reality and a representation of what’s happening outside the theater, but also because of how unusual it is compared to other films. It can also prove to be dreamlike, you feel something’s off. When you talk to people about Victoria is lifelike or more like a dream to them?
That’s a very good question. I know Victoria can be really stressful for some people. A friend told me that she woke up the next morning, and for a split second, she thought she had to go to the police and confess everything [laughs], and then she realized she hadn’t really robbed a bank. You know, in the very first seconds after waking up you feel like something really horrible happened the previous night?
Some other friend told me he’s homesick because he liked being in the movie so much he wanted to go back into it. People have very extreme experiences with this film and that’s why I think they watch it numerous times. I’m proud that young people especially keep revisiting Victoria.
That’s true, I live in New York, and after watching Victoria I got on the subway and was so stressed for some reason. It made me want to ask you about the film’s more theatrical elements. Were you thinking of having a Brechtian effect on your audience?
Not really, I kind of have a theatre background, but theatre is such a safe place. I love it if it’s done right; seeing people being so in the moment can be amazing. But at the same time, the theater is an artificial room with some immediacy, but also it’s safe.
You can go towards the artistic solution as an actor and director, but the camera is a whole different animal, the camera I believe is a little bit like a gun, the original camera comes from the mechanical age, I think cameras know if you lie, or if you’re being too artificial in your choices it shows. On stage, you can get away with that, but you can’t in front of a camera, so the actors in Victoria had to always stay in this zone.
You only had three opportunities to shoot the whole film. How did you know which take was “the one”? What qualities were you looking for in the product?
You’re right, this is a product, after all, and even though we didn’t have much money, it was still a big pile of money to spend on something. I was looking for something to be true and crazy. I was hoping to take all these authentic and real words to steal that back and not have them just be pretty words used to sell something. But to really take these words seriously and yet allow it to be a fantasy, a fairy tale, and a true piece of entertainment, and we only were able to do this in the last take.
My favorite line is when Sonne tells Victoria, “I can show you real Berlin,” which made me think the film itself is acting as a tour guide to parts of Berlin people don’t get to see often.
That’s true, that’s an aspect of the film, but also Berlin is universal and specific. We talked about corporate ideas and selling products with the idea that one size fits all, and sometimes things have to be specific. Berlin is very specific in many ways and we have the universal story of people falling in love and showing solidarity, being ready to talk to other people and meeting them. I’m really glad that worked out. As you said earlier, the film is a product, so we looked at this very intensely and the aspect of improvisation was very important but we also wanted to construct a great story.
There were two very superficial things I kept thinking about while watching Victoria; the first was what a hard workout it must’ve been for the cinematographer, and the other one, coming from someone with one of the world’s smallest bladders, is how were you able to shoot this in one take without giving the actors any bathroom breaks?
Wait, did you know that about me? Because it’s true, I have to go to the bathroom all the time.
No, I meant me!
[laughs] I’m telling you, man, I went to the bathroom during the premiere at the Berlinale! I was sitting next to the mayor of Berlin, and I still had to go.
It’s funny, I never really thought about it until somebody said this couldn’t be one take because they never went to the bathroom. So I talked to Laia, and I’m going to tell you something and hope she won’t be angry with me. I talked to her sometime after the Berlinale and told her somebody doubted the one-take thing because they never went to the bathroom, and she said, “I did.” I said, “When?” and she said, “In the club before we celebrate.” I said, “Laia, those aren’t real bathrooms. It was a set.” She said, “I know! But what did you want me to do?”