Not Just a One-Take Wonder: In Defense of Victoria

German director Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 film Victoria recently arrived on Netflix. If you haven’t already seen it then boot up your tablet, phone, laptop, Chromecast or whatever your having yourself and dive into the 138-minute multi-award winning classic. Otherwise, feel free to read on for a long slew of spoilers!

Filmed from a 12 page outline written by Schipper in partnership with Jan and Christiane Diessler, Victoria’s main claim to fame is that it’s shot entirely in one-take. It follow the film’s heroine (played by actress Laia Costa)  in real time over the course of a single night as she meets a group of lads who lead her into Berlin’s criminal underworld. The thrillingly immersive narrative places huge demands on both cast and crew. Yet all participants rise to the challenge and deliver a logistical and acting triumph.

‘Smoke and Mirrors’

Despite its showering of awards and widespread critical acclaim Victoria does have a minority of detractors. At the time of writing the film currently holds a rating of 77/100 on Metacritic. This rating is dragged down by a small handful of middling reviews that strike a blow at the film’s script which they view as little more than smoke and mirrors’ which exists purely to hold together Schipper’s one-take ‘gimmick’.

Other outlets save their criticism for the screenplay. The LA Times derides the story as a ‘far-fetched’ and ‘prepostorous’ one that’s populated by ‘alienating’ characters. ScreenDaily also attacks the film’s characterisation and argues that the script ‘stretches character credibility’. The AV Club sees no artistic merit in the film’s story whatsoever and states that ‘the real problem with Victoria is that it isn’t about anything apart from answering the question, “Can we pull this [technique] off?”’.

Running with the pack…’

These criticisms miss the central themes that underpin the film’s character development; those of loneliness and solidarity. Victoria is a film about an isolated young girl in a strange city who over the course of a few hours, discovers the friendship and sense of belonging that has eluded her throughout her life, only to have her newfound happiness tragically fall apart.

A review from Indiewire mounts its argument along similar lines. It posits that Victoria offers an ‘insight here into the lure of running with the pack, into the kind of ferocious loyalty that can exist between groups of young guys, and how the promise of membership to a tribe can be so seductive, especially to a lonely young person

These themes leap forth from the film’s opening shot as Schipper’s camera fades in on the crowded dancefloor of a Berlin nightclub. As it wanders slowly through the crowd the camera suddenly becomes transfixed by a young girl dancing away in a world of her own. After a moment we realise that this is Victoria, and she’s in the club by herself with no friends or acquaintances anywhere nearby. This isolation is compounded even further when she heads to the bar and makes an awkwardly futile attempt to connect with the barman.

Always playing the fucking piano…’

We gain an insight into the reason for this isolation a short time later during the film’s acclaimed piano scene. Victoria invites Sonne into the café she works in while she prepares it for the business day. She cracks open a piano in the corner and performs an incredible rendition of Mephisto’s Waltz. Sonne expresses shock and amazement at her talent. Victoria opens up about her past as a student in an exclusive conservatoire where she studied to become a concert pianist. Despite practising the piano for ‘7 hours a day’ over ‘16 and a half years’, she ultimately didn’t make the grade after the conservatoire condemned her as ‘not good enough’. So she gave up on her musical dreams and started a new life in Berlin.

Victoria’s dedication to the piano and relationship with the other conservatory students is key to understanding her character. She laments that they were all engaged in a group rivalry, with every musician out for themselves; ‘the other guys in the conservatory, they are like… your enemies, because they are fighting for your dream too.’ Playing the piano all day every day left Victoria with ‘no life, no friends’. She admits that ‘When I was 12 I was like an old lady, just always playing the fucking piano!’

This admission reveals a lonely young girl full of regret. SF Gate notes how it uncovers her ‘pain’ and shows her to be ‘at loose ends’. CineVue stands alone among the mixed reviews in its observation of how the scene is ‘perfectly calibrated to the film’s exploration of longing and belonging.’

A Place Within the Tribe

It’s this tragic double blow of regret and failure that accounts for Victoria’s motivation and character development. Sonne and his gang provide Victoria with the friendliness and solidarity that eluded her throughout her youth. They’ve invited Victoria into their group and we have little reason to doubt that it is the first time in her life she has ever felt like she’s part of something positive. For Victoria, Sonne and the lads could be her first real group of friends. As Indiewire notes, the gang is a sense of meaning that ‘her insecure artist’s psyche craves’.

It’s this desire to earn both the affections of Sonne and a place within his group that motivates her to assist with the heist. Victoria has never explored what she is capable of outside of the piano. She has no idea what she can achieve, or who she truly is. The deeper she falls in with the group, the more she learns about herself. This new-found sense of solidarity within Sonne’s group is further emphasised with an impressive callback to the opening scene as Schipper’s camera follows the gang back to the club as they celebrate the successful execution of the heist.

The mixed reviews cited above argue that such scenes are little more than ‘magical camerawork’. But these arguments miss the whole point of this scene. It’s significance can only be derived by contrasting it with the film’s opening moments. Victoria has gone from dancing on her own to clubbing with a new-found group of friends. She is now finally part of something meaningful. She has earned her place within the tribe.

No one knows who you are…’

Victoria’s admission to the tribe takes its aforementioned tragic turn as the film enters its second hour. The gang clash with the police and find themselves being chased through the dawn-lit backstreets of Berlin. Following an arrest and subsequent violent shootout, the group is eventually whittled down to just Sonne and Victoria.

The two take refuge in a nearby hotel bedroom where Victoria tends to Sonne’s gunshot wound. Realising that he doesn’t have long left to live Sonne encourages Victoria to let him die so she can save herself. He argues that no one knows her in Berlin. If she acts fast then she can slip out of the hotel and flee back to Spain.

Sonne succumbs to his wounds and leaves Victoria as the last gang member standing. Schipper’s camera keeps track as she wanders in a daze through the hotel and outside into a quiet Berlin street. The camera comes to a rest by the hotel entrance but continues to observe Victoria as she disappears from our view and back into the city the same way she arrived; alone.

Far from being a film that ‘isn’t about anything’, Victoria revolves around its protagonist’s ultimately futile quest for friendship and a sense of belonging within society. This journey leads her into an exploration of her character through which she achieves these desires, but only for a brief period before fate forces her to confront and navigate the darker aspects of both her own personality and life itself.

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