(Germany) Thriller. Directed by Sebastian Schipper. Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski. Category IIB. 138 minutes. Opened Aug 18. “Victoria” opens in a packed, smoky underground club in Berlin, a close-up on a girl dancing alone. You’ll get used to seeing this girl—Victoria (Laia Costa), visiting from Madrid. Outside the club, Victoria meets four guys: local Berliners who promise to show her the real city. In one seamless take over two hours and 18 minutes, Victoria goes from lonely girl in a foreign club to dangerous fugitive running from the police. On its technical merits alone the film is an impressive feat, but more impressive still is how the technique helps enable naturalistic storytelling and consistent suspense.
Any film enthusiast knows that any extended one-take cut is very easy to screw up; a whole one-take movie, therefore, requires meticulous choreography and planning from those behind the camera, and persistent pitch-perfect acting from those in front of it. Somehow “Victoria” has achieved all of this, and in so doing swept six German Film Awards and won a Silver Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival.
From a filmgoer’s perspective “Victoria” is highly watchable, dotted with thoughtful conversations and captivating scenes of a tranquil Berlin: The quiet night on a residential rooftop where four best friends whisper about their regrets and hopes; the flirtatious drunken bike ride leading to an undeniable attraction. The dialogue and acting is so natural and unassuming it feels improvised, though the cast and crew rehearsed the entire thing three times before filming its one take, all in one night. It’s hard not to fall for these characters as the night unfolds, and trust them, in the same way that Victoria quickly warms to the group.
The single-take formula here necessitates continuous subtle, rapid changes in point of view, with a quick tilt of the camera to look at who’s speaking to make you feel involved. Each event crops up unexpectedly, generating in the audience a sense of constant surprise—and in fact, the less you know about the premise and story, the more you can enjoy these surprises as an outsider, much like our protagonist herself.
Rather than rely on cuts to convey narrative transitions, as in a conventional film, “Victoria” relies on sudden variations in sound level and changes in music. And with a beautiful score by German electronic producer Nils Frahm, you’re treated to some delectable, romantic, and at times exhilarating storytelling.
The movie does suffer somewhat from the curse of shaky cam, which can’t really be avoided in chase scenes—so that, by the last 20-minute stretch, I felt a little motion sickness creep in (though this is coming from someone who gets sick watching “Call of Duty” gameplay, so I can’t speak for everyone).
If “Victoria” were shot like any other movie, it would have been no more than a solid thriller. But instead, director Sebastian Schipper demonstrates how it’s possible to create narrative transitions without the editorial manipulating of time and space. Perhaps more than this, Schipper is to be commended for taking the one-take format—something that in feature length is usually confined to rarified, arthouse cinema— and making it so compelling and relatable. If you thought the pretend-seamlessness of “Birdman” was good, wait ‘til you see “Victoria.” Evelyn Lok