Virtuoso

‘Victoria’: The Punk Rock, Single-Take Cinematic Triumph of the Year

Sebastian Schipper’s bank-robbing action movie was shot in a single take with no CGI—eat your heart out, Birdman—in just three attempts, with the clock ticking and money running out.

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There’s a moment in the single-take film Victoria—several moments, really—when the marvel of what filmmaker Sebastian Schipper, his motley cast of young actors, and his daredevil crew are attempting to pull off before your very eyes lands with such punk rock perfection, the movie comes to life with an exhilarating and rebellious power.

After enduring a scenario fraught with pressure, the film’s millennial antiheroes amble through an ecstatic aftermath feeling all the feels, with plenty more to come. It’s a moment of celebration and pause after an unrelenting frenzy of action, both for the audience and for the actors who have been living these two hours in real time.

The miracle is that they pulled it off. As writer-director Schipper says, borrowing from Francis Ford Coppola’s line about the Apocalypse Now shoot, “Victoria isn’t a film about a bank robbery. It is a bank robbery.”

Victoria isn’t just the story of a lonely Spanish girl in Berlin (Laia Costa) impulsively tagging along with three friendly young men, hurtling through the most fateful night of her life. And it’s not just an eye-catching single-take gimmick—a Euro-indie version of what Birdman passed off with CGI sleight of hand, only done for real, in just three attempts, with the clock ticking and the last bits of money running out.

It’s also a fresh breath of pure cinema, and in a way, the most impressive action film in recent memory.

“I initiated this project to get out of the box, to get away from how you’re ‘supposed’ to do it,” explained Schipper this week in Los Angeles, capping months of buzz that began in February at the Berlin Film Festival, where Victoria took home the Silver Bear for cinematography. In June the film won six trophies at the German Film Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for star Laia Costa.

Years ago, Schipper, an actor-turned-director and Tom Tykwer cohort, appeared in The English Patient and Run Lola Run before making his helming debut with 1999’s Absolut Giganten, also about restless European youths tethered by the bonds of comradeship. But after directing three features, Schipper, a lanky German with rock star looks and a mischievous twinkle, was feeling trapped.

“I was working as a director so I was already on the good side of the street, on the sunny side, but I was working on the goddamn script for five years,” he said. “And that’s not an uncommon story because a feature script takes a lot of work—if things go really fast you’re going to do it in two years, easily in four years. But I sat there and thought, ‘I feel like I’m in school.’”

Even now, eight months after premiering to acclaim in Berlin, Schipper feels those walls closing in as he’s hit the promo trail for Victoria, a gamble he describes in musical terms as a work of aggro punk, dirty soul ripped straight out of his heart.

“I had a daydream of getting outside of the box, of robbing a bank, and then we did this film and sometimes it’s like I’m back in the box, back in school answering all these questions,” he said, flashing a good-natured smile. “We did this kind of punk rock on the street, we don’t give a fuck kind of film, and sometimes now I wish—of course, it would be totally pretentious because I’m not one—but sometimes I envy the rock stars, the punk rockers. I could just be drunk or stoned up the ass and go, ‘Whaaaat was the question?’”

After all, the Victoria that exists on screen—minus the extensive sound design and audio work Schipper and his crew crafted after the shoot—represents a singular two hour and 18 minute period of his life. After extensive rehearsals and two imperfect runs through the entirety of the story, cameras rolled on Victoria’s third and final take at 4:30 on the morning of April 27, 2014.

Schipper and his core group of actors, led by Spanish actress Costa and German star Frederick Lau, worked off a spare 12-page script hammering out character, story, and dialogue as they went. What Schipper was striving for was so malleable, Costa recalls, that when she first sat down to meet him for coffee in Barcelona to discuss the role, her character was intended to be a supporting character and the movie wasn’t yet called Victoria.

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“I knew it would be cool and crazy, but that was it,” she said. “We work from instincts, and something was telling me, this is going to be great.”

The story that took shape comes alive with a youthful aggression reminiscent of Godard, Band of Outsiders meets Breathless in Berlin: Victoria, an isolated young Spaniard who’s recently left music conservatory and moved to Germany, where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. We meet her late one night, dancing alone to the pulsing beat in a subterranean club, looking to connect with another soul in the darkness. She meets Sonne (Lau), a local man out with his two best friends, and agrees to join their after-hours escapades, because why not?

Before Victoria turns into a virtuoso high-wire act of pure cinema, it captures a vibrant, crackling energy between these aimless millennials. “I think they’re lost,” said Schipper. “I think they’ve been left alone. That’s something that really touches me. The world today for people in their twenties says, ‘We don’t really need you. You can hang around as long as you want, but close the door when you leave. The ones that are super overachievers, we can use those. The rest…this all works pretty good without you.’ I think that’s the undercurrent, and I’d go as far as saying it’s traumatizing. You need to feel needed.”

Costa, a Barcelona native who earned a Ph.D. before turning to acting, echoed that sentiment. “I think young people are disappointed. They’re told, ‘If you follow the rules you’re going to be fine.’ Victoria follows the rules, and then she’s like, ‘Where is my promised land?’”

“That’s happening right now—I have a lot of friends who’ve been following the rules, they have great studies, they can speak three languages, they have master’s degrees, but there’s no work,” she said. “My father told me, ‘If you go to university you’ll have a job forever.’ And that’s not true anymore. I think they’re disappointed with all that.”

Victoria represents that kind of angst-ridden existential search, not just for the real-life Victorias but also to Schipper as a filmmaker.

“If I was a musician, this is the first album where I sing, where I make my own music,” he said. “This is my kind of music. I think it’s totally legitimate when you start out when you’re a teenager, playing guitar with your friends on a tennis racket—it’s totally legitimate to copy your idols. Especially in film, because it’s such a crazy enterprise, you do it. You copy your idols. That’s very hard to get away from.”

“I think I sounded like other bands before, maybe I sang like other singers—maybe I sang like Thom Yorke or whatever—but this was the first time I said, ‘Yes, this is the way I have to go. I can’t be a nice guy.’ I’m more on top of my game if it becomes relentless and if there’s a certain aggressiveness or daringness in my creativity.”

He describes the making of Victoria as making music—an epic roller coaster symphony of seven actors, 150 extras, six assistant directors, and three sound crews traversing 22 locations in just over two hours, culminating at 6:48 a.m., just after sunrise.

“Our rehearsals were like jam sessions, so everyone was jamming away and they got to know each other better,” he said. “I was able to watch them, hear them, and say ‘slower,’ ‘faster,’ ‘more punk,’ or ‘easy—take your time here.’ And the moment you know your instrument and you have a good idea about the compositions, you can play. And in a live concert, there are going to be mistakes all over the place. That’s not a bad thing, as long as you play and give and are in the piece.”

Only once during the third and final take did Schipper start sweating.

“I was excited because we were like one hour-plus into the film and I was like, ‘This is going good. This feels good!—and it didn’t always feel good before.”

But during a climactic scene inside a van, with Costa driving as the cameras rolled, disaster almost struck when the planned route nearly ran the moving set into an upcoming location full of extras milling about ahead of their scenes. Schipper, who was directing from the back seat of the car, spotted them ahead. He shouted to Costa at the wheel, while director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen kept filming.

“They were waiting, having a coffee and eating a donut, and I was like, ‘Fuck! Stop, go back!’” laughs Schipper. “My mind was like, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck—now we have to CGI this, blah blah blah.’ But it turned out [Grøvlen] saw that and filmed Freddie instead. By then there was pure panic in the car.”

Schipper yelled at Costa to cut right early, changing the geography of their rehearsed route amid a cacophony of co-stars in character shouting at her in German. The anxiety you see on her face onscreen is real, Schipper laughs. “I think the one huge mistake was a big payoff for the movie.”

Not that Schipper would like audiences to know how the sausage was made before they see Victoria. He’d prefer them to know as little as possible, even to accidentally stumble across the film. “I would love people to go to the cinema, like they’re out on the street and it starts to rain and they don’t have an umbrella, they already had a shitty day, and they say, ‘I’m just going to buy a ticket and sit here for two hours, calm down and get away from my life,’ not knowing anything about it,” he said, with a grin. “That’s how I would love people to see the film.”