Victoria is Sebastian Schipper’s formally brilliant, logistically jaw-dropping fourth feature. Unfolding in one single take and shot when most of Berlin was sleeping, it is an audacious crime thriller.
Shots are the base unit of film-making: a movie is usually comprised of a number of shots of varying lengths, so when a film is all just one shot then it’s going to have a significantly different effect. What’s the value of shooting a whole film in one take without any cheating?
For me it’s not a technical thing. Cinema is something you watch with your nervous system. You don’t watch it with the brain, or even the heart. You’re sitting in your seat and you can’t avoid what you’re seeing. You can’t escape cinema. It’s a highly emotional, very direct experience regardless of whether it has a lot of cuts or none. I made a film without cuts but that doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day I don’t care. My film has to transcend the idea that there are no cuts, just like other films have to transcend the idea that they have cuts, that they’ve been shot over the course of two months in all kinds of places that do not belong with each other. It’s a huge challenge for a film to feel like it isn’t fake because every film is incredibly manufactured, mine included.
How does that approach relate to performance? Towards the end of the film there’s a moment of jubilation and release that might not have been as easy to capture without the actors having an hour and a half run-up to it.
I think actors are like charismatic wildlife with really colourful feathers, and then they’re discovered and the next thing they know they’re put in a cage, and that cage is called a trailer. So they wait in the trailer and then they’re led to set which is the circus, and they do their tricks and then they go back to the trailer again. Maybe it’s a bit of a dramatic statement but I opened their cages and said “Come on out, let’s do this together. I’m not going to bring you out every hour for ten minutes.” Whether they needed the ramp of a whole film I don’t know but what they needed was to be fully in charge. As their director I couldn’t own what they were doing, couldn’t tell them to smile a little more, smile a little less, talk a little louder, be a little funnier. What we call micromanagement they did by themselves. I was more like a coach and less like a director.
Is it difficult to give up that kind of control? Does it go against your instincts as a director?
There’s always a bargain between actors and directors. It’s a deal: “If I give you that you’ve got to give me this.” In the first two takes when it didn’t work I thought it was a really bad deal, but in the third one they pulled off scenes I couldn’t have written. When they did it right I loved it because I knew they were really flirting, really falling in love, really being bored, really showing who the characters were. I didn’t get to control every little bit but there was a large and wonderful harvest that was fantastic to see. I’m 47. Could I have written an entire script for this kind of film? Yes, I could have done that, but maybe I would have sugar-coated being young, or made it more harsh. Even the actors couldn’t have written it. The film wasn’t based on paper, it was based on me talking to them, them talking to me, all of us talking together.
How did things work logistically during the take? Were there people setting the next scene as you went along?
It was all ready to go from the beginning. The crew worked all night to prep everything and by the time we started at around 04:20 everybody was waiting. The ambulance that shows up one hour and forty minutes into the film – the ambulance that we only see come around one corner at one point – they were there when we started shooting, eating doughnuts, waiting for their moment.
Locations are chosen for more conventional films because they’re appropriate and look good, but presumably you had to find places that were within a short travelling distance of each other. How did that factor into your pre-production?
The body of the story was developed during the process. It wasn’t like everything was in a script and we had to find places to fit, but sometimes we were just trying to find anywhere that worked. There’s a bank in a key scene that I never really liked. I wanted one that was a little more bank-looking. Now I really love it. It’s a stupid little bank and that feeds into the believability of it. Too often when you direct you’re enlarging. At some point what that does is inform people that they’re watching a film. It all just feels like a movie: everything’s a little brighter and funnier and larger than life. But life has a pretty good momentum. It can have a pretty solid punch by itself without amplifying everything.
The dialogue is largely in English. It’s an interesting choice because it’s not the first language of any of the characters, so every conversation is a little imprecise and broken. What was your thinking behind that?
That’s how it is in Berlin. You could live there for five years without learning German. You don’t really have to because everybody knows English. It sums up travelling for me. Travelling in Europe is a big thing for a lot of people from all over the world, and on my travels as a German in my early twenties I would meet some guys from Belgium or some girls from Italy on a beach in France and we would speak English like that. There’s something very charming about it, very young.
Originally published in Curzon Magazine Issue 55.