The People vs. Fritz Bauer presents the story of Attorney General Fritz Bauer, a Jew on a quest to prosecute the crimes of the Third Reich, as he was also briefly in a concentration camp, at one point. The action is set in motion when he learns that Adolf Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel responsible for mass deportations, is not only alive but living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. To be sure, Eichmann is one of the worst Nazi officials, and in today’s political climate it would be hard to imagine that his prosecution would be riddled with difficulties, yet as this film shows, even in the late 1950s the political climate in Germany was not as progressive as it is today.

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Victoria posterTo the more cynical viewer, the fact that Victoria was shot in one continuous take may seem like a gimmick, but the truth is, the film holds many precious, real moments that would have never existed had director Sebastian Schipper decided not to shoot his movie the way he did. This isn’t a “one-take” film like Birdman (‘Birdman’ lampoons Hollywood with humorous, hyper-real, hero-hating satire). There were no tricky edits to transition into complicated effects shots. This is a daring film that balances a genuinely intimate story with tricky set pieces looming ahead of the drama. It follows a group of young men in Berlin who flirt with a Spanish visitor, our titular heroine, dragging her into a harrowing bank robbery and its aftermath. And it’s all shot in one genuine continuous take. Yes, it can’t be emphasized enough because there is magic in it.

It’s funny that Schipper, who co-wrote the script with Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Eike Frederik Schulz, played a small role in Tom Tykwer’s breakout 1998 movie Run Lola Run (he played Mike) because this film feels antithetical to the vigorously constructed Tykwer movie. While Run Lola Run depends so much on edits that it defied rules of space and time, Victoria is enslaved to chronology due to the fact the film has not a single splice cut in the action. Yet both films share a kinetic energy that grips the viewer in similar ways.

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The obvious energy of Victoria comes from the film’s vibrant characters. We meet them under the strobe lights of a nightclub (epileptics should be warned). Victoria (Laia Costa) is on her way home from an uneventful night of drinking and dancing at a Berlin nightclub, when a sweet-talking Sonne (Frederick Lau) persuades her to join him and his “brothers” Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff) to extend the night a bit longer.

The push and pull in Sonne and Victoria’s flirtation creates an invisible line of power that’s wonderful to watch. Lau brings genuine charm to his role and Costa, who looks like a young Björk, is enchanting as a woman who can hold her own with these playfully rough dudes who sometimes allow a glitter of menace to shine through their rakish demeanor. The film takes its time with the mundane getting-to-know-you phase without any tricks in time lapse for sentimentality. There are a few scenes where the dialogue drops and dreamy music takes over the soundtrack. If it was meant to cover up flubs in the dialogue, you will never notice by the way the characters continue to wordlessly gel.

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There’s a more subtle way Victoria exudes its verve. It has several wondrous moments that indelibly make these characters human, and credit is due to the film’s so-called gimmick. The single take works for this film because it captures both the mundane and the spontaneous with a sort of reverent naturalism, and you have to hand it to the actors for both keeping their composure and embracing these serendipitous moments. They barrel through small mistakes without flinching, including a dropped cigarette and a sticky door. But the real intense moments where this works best is when the action begins. After a lengthy chase sequence involving gunfire, when Victoria finally has a chance to catch her breath and tries to speak it sounds as real and as visceral as you might imagine it would feel for someone who has just had her life in peril several times over.

The camera work can feel dizzying, and there are a couple of instances where you might be left to wonder whether that red point of light in a window during the chase scene is a laser sight that is intentionally part of the drama but is really just a flub. Overall, though, Victoria features transcendent moments that overshadow any notion that this is a film driven by a mere gimmick. It’s not often that a movie can touch the human side of performance while being as grounded within the constraints of the medium, and Victoria is a thrilling, sometimes moving example of ownership of the cinematic experience.

Hans Morgenstern

Victoria runs 138 minutes, is in English and in German with English subtitles and is not rated (it has cursing and violence). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 16, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema who hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. Adopt Films provided all images to illustrate this post.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Barbara (2012) Movie PosterCold War Germany has inspired many a depressing movie about humanity’s struggle in the face of oppression. The much-acclaimed Barbara offers something refreshingly different without dumbing-down the stark atmosphere that stays true to the dark era of the 20th century. It has deservedly won over those in the film’s native country, garnering top awards (see its recognition on IMDB).

Will it make the translation in the US? As the film seemed to have missed recognition during awards season stateside, I cannot say that it will, but it should. Cinephiles who should most not miss this film are those who appreciate the compact, concentrated moral tales by the Dardenne brothers (see: ‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). Using the backdrop of Cold War era East Germany in the year 1980, director Christian Petzold presents a film designed to reveal something much grander than a single person’s struggle for freedom, but a story of sacrifice and grace under oppression.

The film’s titular protagonist (Nina Hoss, who won a Silver Bear for her performance) is a doctor banished from Berlin to the hinterlands after she committed some crime under the communist regime. Barbara_04_HFThe drama glazes over her wrongdoing (applying for an exit visa), which befits the film. As we know from history, many of the laws in East Germany were morally suspect and infringed on human rights. Applying for a visa no longer constitutes a criminal act in the eyes of today’s democratic Germany. But it is testament to the film’s strength that, with a few compact scenes, Barbara is established as a morally suspect person who must in the end win the audience over, despite her seemingly trivial moral divergence— a bold move in confident storytelling by Petzold, who co-wrote the script with Harun Farocki.

The first day at work for Barbara is all about establishing her as an outsider. Her enigmatic quality, as she maintains a distance from her landlady and co-workers, serves the film well. When she first appears on screen, the camera maintains an appropriate distance, as citizens in this era and place treated one another with suspicion, above all else. Barbara_05_HFThe first shot of her in the film is a high angle through the leaves of treetops. The gaze looks out as if from a window a couple of stories above ground, as two unseen men chatter about her behavior and make assumptions about her personality. We later learn the voyeurs are the man who will be her boss, André (Ronald Zehrfeld) and a fellow named Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), a member of the Stasi, police who spied on citizens waiting for them only to slip up, so they might be thrown back in jail.

Though the camera placement of this opening scene will never return in the film, the distant gaze haunts much of the film’s action. Barbara constantly looks over her shoulder while sneaking around to meet a lover who visits her from free West Germany bearing gifts and cash. Meanwhile, Klaus shadows her and pops up more than once sitting in a chair in her own apartment. As a colleague rummages through every nook of the modest dwelling, Klaus only studies Barbara, eyes fixated on catching behavior that might betray her. If that does not seem invasive enough, he does not leave until a female colleague shows up to strip search Barbara.

The stark situation, removed from the usually gray city of Berlin to the bucolic countryside, is punctuated by scenes like the one depicted above. The film maintains the mood without melodramatic angles or music but via consistent images. BARBARA  Regie Christian PetzoldThe desolate road Barbara travels by bicycle on her way to work always appears windswept. Never does a rainy day occur to change the mood. It’s all in the darkness of the situation. A moment given to strangers who turn to stare at Barbara is enough to establish the mood of oppression of East Germany, during this era.

Like Hoss, cinematographer Hans Fromm has been a consistent collaborator with the director. The three of them have made four other films together, and Barbara reveals a clear harmony in their craft that only experience can bring. Fromm maintains a steady, static camera throughout the film. Though there are no attention-grabbing pans, tracking shots or zooms, the images are loaded with irony, depth and color, which might seem an ironic cocktail of visual tones. Though often color-saturated, settings are always simple, yet loaded with information that push the story forward and maintain mood. The film’s mise-en-scène reveals the hospital as ill-equipped to handle some cases, but it also reveals the simplicity of life in the country disrupted by the government’s complicated, heavy-handed need to keep people in line. Barbara_02_HF 2The colors are so dynamic and brilliant they not only make up for the film’s static camera but also the fact that the director chooses to use only diegetic music for mood enhancement within the scenes. The film almost feels like a Technicolor experience, standing in dramatic irony against a gloomy way of living.

As Barbara creeps around to meet her lover, her supervising doctor always exudes an amiable distant charm and has to work against a natural suspicion to gain her trust. They ultimately bond while taking extra steps to care for separate patients. Trust in these oppressed people is established outside their relationship. Before that, a conversation over a Rembrandt print, (The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp) whose brilliant colors meld into the world of Barbara prophetically, finally begins to thaw the ice between the two of them.

In the end, morality will trump a self-serving need for freedom for our hero who will have to make a crucial decision during the film’s climax, which is handled with as much low-key grace as can be expected by the filmmakers. That may read as rather heavy-handed, but the power of the film to go against melodrama and sentimentality for such a profound statement, reveals the talent of Petzold. Beyond the Cold War era period, this poetic, modest film ultimately reveals that trust is found outside relationships, and we are all more than the sum of the other’s perceptions, a human lesson beyond era and language we should all learn from.

Hans Morgenstern

Barbara is Rated PG-13, runs 105 min. and is in German with English subtitles in the US. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Feb. 8, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL

Feb. 15:
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)