Remember how everyone marveled and fussed about how director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the Oscar-winning “Birdman” to look like it was all accomplished in one single take? Well, as impressive as that was, the filmmakers behind the German thriller “Victoria,” which won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Contribution for Cinematography at Berlinale earlier this year, did one better. Unlike Iñárritu and Lubezki, “Victoria” director Sebastian Schipper and his DP, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, didn’t spend weeks figuring out how to disguise their 15 minute cuts using CG-trickery and cleverly placed objects. These guys simply went ahead and shot the whole movie in one single take—all two hour and twenty minutes of it! Now that’s impressive!
Unlike some gimmicky pictures from earlier this year, “Victoria” is more than just a dazzling triumph of technique; Schipper is an astute filmmaker who ensures that his story and characters are relatable and plausible enough to stand independently, divorced from the flashy filmmaking. While it’s unlikely that you’ll ever forget about the technical conceit weaving the picture together, chances are even that you were lured to the movie by this gimmick in the first place. This is first and foremost, a riveting and adrenaline-soaked story about naivety, desperation and how one bad decision invariably leads to another.
Set between the hours of 4:30am to 7am in a neighborhood in Berlin, the film follows Victoria (performed sensationally by Laia Costa), a petite 20-something Spanish woman who has recently emigrated to the German capital from Madrid. When we first meet her, she’s dancing the night away, all by herself, at a crowded EDM club. When taking a break for a drink, she catches the attention of Sonne (Frederick Lau), a charismatic and flirtatious hooligan who tries to convince her to hang out with him. She takes a liking to him, and flirts back, at once nervous and intrigued by this guy. Leaving the club, he introduces her to his group of friends, among them Boxer (Franz Rogowski) and Blinker (Burak Yigit), two sketchy-looking but amiable dimwits. And although she knows that these guys aren’t exactly model citizens—they blatantly try to steal a car in front of her— she remains intrigued enough to continue being around them—ignorant to the world of terror that’s about to engulf her.
At first, it’s difficult to ascertain why a smart, pretty, and talented girl like Victoria would fraternize this late at night with three strange and dangerous-looking men in a city that is still alien to her. But as the film progresses, and we get to know her, mostly through her rather intimate and playful conversations with Sonne, Schipper reveals the character’s immense loneliness. These guys may be delinquents but they’re friendly and excite her. Sonne also happens to be a good-looking guy who she wants to have some fun with. And when you’re in your early 20’s, consequences be damned, right?
What’s fascinating about these early sequences is that despite the fluidity of the single take, they feel extremely loose and relaxed. This is because the filmmakers spend the majority of the first 40 minutes following Victoria and the boys as they goof off, indulging in mundane activities like strolling on the streets, getting into silly brawls and mostly getting drunk, and saying stupid things. It’s what you’d expect from a group of drunken college kids on a weekend night. While these sequences may feel tedious, they highlight the realism that Schipper is shooting for, while also establishing the characters, in particular Victoria and Sonne, who slowly begin orbiting each other in a ballet of flirtation.
But just as Victoria and Sonne are about to consummate their meet cute, Schipper throws a monkey wrench into the works. Turns out, Boxer is a recent parolee, and owes a local gangster €10,000 for receiving protection in prison. When the gangster comes to collect, he demands that Boxer steal €50,000 from a bank that very night in order to repay his debt or else… Down a man, Sonne persuades Victoria to join them without explaining what exactly she’s getting herself into. It’s only when she meets the gangster that she realizes the full extent of the nightmare.
Once the heist aspect of the picture kicks in, that’s when Schipper and Sturla Brandth really step on the accelerator. Beginning with the heist and all the way to its aftermath, “Victoria” propels forward with a velocity of Usain Bolt, intensifying—in suspense and in stakes—never stopping or slowing down for a break, simply because the set-up doesn’t allow it to. And Brandth Grøvlen’s free-flowing camera, mostly shot in medium close-up, is there for every second of it, following the four protagonists as they dart through alleyways, stairwells, rooftops, and from in and out of cars, gifting the film with a you-are-there immediacy. It is in many ways a fifth character in the film. By the time the screen fades to black, two hours and twenty minutes in, you’re left breathless, a bit exhausted yet exhilarated by what you’ve watched. “Victoria” may have its issues—it could have benefitted from a leaner first act, and for its conceit, it does run a bit long—but this one-of-a-kind experimental motion picture not only stands as a towering technical achievement of the form, and also as a riveting thrill ride.
Director: Sebastian Schipper
Cinematographer: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
Screenwriter: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper, Eike Frederik Schulz
Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit
Producer: Jan Dressler, Sebastian Schipper
Editor: Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Music: Nils Frahm
Production Design: Ulrich Friedrichs
Running time: 138 minutes
Companies: MonkeyBoy Adopt Films
Rating: NR (but if it were, it would be an R for intensity, violence, drug use, language, and some nudity)
VICTORIA is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For tickets, click here.