‘Victoria’ is a Mesmerizing One-Shot Thriller

Long-time readers know I approach contemporary German movies with a bit of trepidation. So I was amazed by Victoria, an gem of a German film from 2015.

The plot could hardly be simpler: Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish music student who’s living in Berlin and working as a waitress. She goes clubbing one night, and meets a group of four young German guys who charm her with their broken high-school English, frisky late-night hi-jinks, and friendly, non-threatening manner. Sparks fly, in particular, between one of them, nicknamed ‘Sonne’ (Sun, played by Frederick Lau). Victoria decides to hang around with them after they all leave the nightclub together at around 4:30 AM. As she gets to know them, it turns out they’re a bit sleazier than she originally thought — one hints at a criminal record, another gets blackout drunk — but that’s all part of the no-strings-attached, exchange-student experience. Then one of four gets a fateful call from an old prison buddy, and things turn rather dark. That’s all I’ll say; avoid spoilers at all costs.

Victoria is one of the very few movies made in one continuous take. And what a take it is! We follow them through the club, out on the streets of Kreuzberg and Mitte, up to building roofs, down to parking garages, into banks, into apartments, and through courtyards. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and lots is in English (which disqualified the film for the Oscar foreign-language category). Of course, the one-take movie is a bit of a gimmick, but done well, it can ratchet up the tension and drama in an organic way. Which is precisely what happens here. Further, Victoria has none of the ‘choreographed’ look of some one-take movies. The action is seamless, fluid and convincing; you never doubt for a second that you’re ‘in the moment’ with the characters. And as the movie progresses, the fact that it was all done in one take became ever more jaw-droppingly astounding.

The performances are intense, believable and moving. Costa and Lau received German film prize awards, and deservedly so. Some people have called the plot a bit hare-brained, but I didn’t: The main event is a robbery by a bunch of hopped-up amateurs which goes horribly wrong. Most robberies are done by hopped-up amateurs, and most do go horribly wrong. The chaotic, violent final scenes are the sort of thing that’s becoming all too familiar on German streets.

Victoria’s a bit overlong, but just a bit. Other than that, it’s a minor cinematic masterpiece. It avoids all the weaknesses of German movies (sermonizing, heavy-handed symbolism, lack of drama), and draws on all the strengths (outstanding set design, awesomely talented actors, convincing improvisation drawn from extensive stage experience). I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

The Slow Death of Movie Theaters

German movie theaters experienced a 15% decline in ticket sales in the first half of 2018 (g). This is part of a long-term downward trend:

Bildergebnis für besucherzahl deutsche kinos

The linked article says the 2018 results were mainly due to the lack of “Hollywood blockbusters” like the Harry Potter franchise, but industry insiders also pointed to long-term trends: better home theater experiences, excellent TV series, the usual suspects.

Some of this, though, is the fault of movie theaters themselves. Germany early on adopted a strange culture of movie-going: the main feature invariably starts 20-30 minutes later than the advertised start time. The delay is taken up by an endless series of trailers, promos, and advertisements, and is often interrupted to give the audience time to go buy more snacks. Sometimes ushers even walk the aisles offering treats.

Most Germans seemed to take this for granted and obediently show up on time. Back when you could only see movies up close in the theater, it was a place for like-minded people to gather and socialize, so why not treat it like part of a night out?

Now, though, movies stream excellent quality in your own home, and quite a few people, like me, don’t want to be hit with advertisements when you’re captive in a movie seat you’ve already paid for. Further, there’s it’s hard to get in the mood for a movie you want to see by being forced to watch 5 trailers for movies you don’t want to see, including some movies whose very existence makes you question the wisdom of further human procreation.

I love me a good movie, but only see flicks in a theater maybe twice per year anymore. When I do go, I visit only funky, subsidized art-house theaters which are just plain fun places to be (often because they’re part of/next to a lively bar). Multiplexes are going the way of the video store for many reasons, but the annoying over-dependence on trailers and advertisements surely is one of them.

“Why Is There Straw Everywhere?” and the Naturalness of German Pornography

Pop culture generates random flecks of absurdity which lodge themselves in a nation’s soul. In Germany, one of these gems is this scene from a 2002 movie Eighteen-and-a-half (g), a type of flick we used to call a ‘specialty feature’ in English:

Girl: “So, here’s the fuse box we’re having problems with, so you can take a look.”

Man: “Sure, but why is there straw everywhere?”

Girl: “Why are you wearing a mask?”

Man: [sighs] “Oh well. How ’bout a blowjob?”

Someone found this stretch of dialogue amusing, and stuck it on the Internet in 2002. It went viral, as they say, and now every German under the age of 40 knows this scene. All you have to do is mention “straw lying around” somewhere and people will break out in knowing smirks or, if there’s been drinking, lusty re-creations of the “electrician’s” visit.

A German documentary team later investigated this piece of history tracked down the director of the movie, Nils Molitor. Here is his interview:

Molitor is the friendly bald guy. He explains that as a porno director, he always took care to make sure his movies had at least some semblance of a plot and dialogue. He tried to make the actors look as good as possible, and to “bring out the acting talent hidden inside some people”.

For the scene in question, he had hired a guy from Berlin who “had a giant cock”. When the guy showed up, he insisted on playing the scene in a mask, since he had a job in Berlin and people who didn’t know about his side-hustle. So Molitor, with the ingenuity of a Cassavetes, integrated the mask into the dialogue.

Molitor goes on to describe the basic philosophy of German porno: “Naturalness” (Natürlichkeit). American porn stars, he complains have “everything done”, from breasts to lips to privates. As for Eastern European women, they’re so beautiful that no ordinary German schlub (the Deutscher Michel) could imagine bedding one of them. German porn, Molitor insists, should be made with German women. They may have some imperfections: a few crooked teeth, or a little roll of belly fat. Yet this brings them into the realm of the maybe-beddable, the guy watching the flick thinks: “Yeah, that might just happen to me one day, if I get really lucky.”

I hope you enjoyed this little foray into German pop culture. Later, if I have a moment, I’ll explain why certain Germans, the best kind of Germans, burst into laughter if you repeat the phrase: “60 kilograms (g) of ground meat”.

Dorm-Room Bullshit Sessions, Lovingly Filmed

http://cineuropa.org/en/videoembed/348080/rdid/345445/

Above is a trailer for a German movie, ‘303’ (link here if the embed doesn’t work). The English-language description is:

When biology student Jule finds out she’s pregnant, she sets out for Portugal to find her boyfriend Alex, who works on an organic commune there. Traveling in a Mercedes ‘303’ bus, she picks up hitchhiker Jan at a gas station outside Berlin, who’s traveling to a Spanish fishing village to tray [sic] and find his biological father. They’re both passionate and not very diplomatic, very interested in world affairs and philosophy, and while they’re “on the road”, they have impassioned and deep conversations about capitalism, human nature, love and relationships and the meaning of life. They trip becomes an emotional roller coaster, which finds them falling in love with each other? [sic]

Middle-class kids who inexplicably have months of free time on their hands conversing earnestly about “capitalism” and “the meaning of life”?

Alas, my pressing schedule will not afford me time to see this film.