A young Spanish woman, recently moved to Berlin, finds her flirtation with a local guy turn potentially deadly as their night out with his friends reveals a dangerous secret. Shot in real time, in one continuous take.
Years ago, I was watching a 1950s British drama about a woman led astray by a dashing roué. It included a whirlwind montage of highlights from their wild, cosmopolitan affair: boxing matches, popping magnums, roulette wheels, flights to Paris and the glamour of the Moulin Rouge… At which point a friend nudged me and whispered: “Now that’s what I call a crammed night out.” The young heroine of the German film Victoria really does have a busy night on the town – a mere few hours that take in flirtation, peril, dancefloor euphoria, an impromptu piano recital and, to cap it all, some reckless criminality. What’s more, director Sebastian Schipper gets it all into a taut 140 minutes – and one single continuous shot. But, more than a technical prodigy, Victoria is an authentic piece of cinematic magic. Taking us deep into one woman’s experience, it’s as adrenaline-charged as any mainstream action cinema, but with a minimum of production frills. The film starts in a techno club in Berlin’s Mitte district around 4am; as the bass thumps and the lights flash, we spot Victoria (Laia Costa) dancing alone and carefree. She’s from Madrid, a pianist recently dropped out from conservatoire and taking time out in Berlin, working in a cafe. After a while, the camera follows her to the exit, where a dorkish-looking bloke named Sonne (Frederick Lau) sticks his head in and asks her if the club’s worth the price of admission. When Victoria leaves, Sonne is outside with three dodgy-looking pals. They spin her the weariest lines in the book, offering to show her the real Berlin. For some reason Victoria decides to join them – making us wonder whether she’s hopelessly naive, fearlessly open to anything the night will bring, or very possibly the craziest person in the picture. As the night develops, we become aware of how confidently Schipper uses his limited time. He doesn’t pelt through the action, but paces it very effectively. We’re already quite a way into the course of events when Victoria and Sonne share an interlude of quiet intimacy, and she serenades him with a brief Liszt piano recital. It’s now, as the film appears to be winding down, that Schipper ramps things up. The boys have urgent business to take care of, and they need Victoria to help them. As they rendezvous in a subterranean car park with the sinister, leather-faced Andi (André Hennicke), we’re suddenly thrown into deep genre territory – and it’s not spoiling anything to reveal that things, as per genre convention, don’t go according to plan. What you won’t see coming is the nuanced set of changes in Victoria’s relationship with the guys, or the shifts in her character: from happy-go-lucky ingenue (an impression underlined by Costa’s impish, Björk-like features) to determined urban desperado, and finally to something like a tragic opera heroine. Costa gives a terrific, affecting and, by the end, intensely unsettling performance. Lau’s Sonne undergoes similar changes – starting as an oafish lunk, but once into the adventure, acquiring a muscular dash and a distinctly Brando-esque charisma. The film doesn’t flaunt its technical bravado, so you’re never too distracted by wondering how Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen pulled off their choreography, turning a nondescript small section of Mitte into a nocturnal playground of seemingly infinite possibility. But you do become aware of the film’s tricks with duration, as in the gang’s brief return to the club – in reality lasting just a few minutes, but feeling like a whole tournament of triumphant revelry. “Real time” in cinema has rarely been so craftily elasticised. The art of the mad tracking shot – the seamless, sinuous take that seems to go on for ever – has become a big deal in recent years, whether outrageously faked, as in Iñárritu’s Birdman, or performed with stately rigour, as in Sokurov’s Russian Ark. While Victoria never feels like a mere bid for a championship medal, Schipper, Grøvlen and the cast and crew impress mightily with their energy, discipline and (a usually meaningless term among movie folk, but one that makes absolute sense here) commitment to “the moment”. When Victoria finally emerges into a chilly Berlin morning, we feel we’ve lived through the emotions of a lifetime with her. Mind you, having stayed in this very part of Mitte two months ago, I can tell you she’ll be lucky to find a decent breakfast round there.
Jonathan Romney, The Observer, 3rd April 2105
Cinema isn’t yet a contest to be decided by tape measure, but it’s hard not to be blindsided by the practical achievement of shooting in one continuous take. Myth has it that the Oscar-winning Birdman did so, but that film wasn’t even pretending to: there are hard cuts in it, and the sleight-of-hand elsewhere, manipulated in post-production, is the kind that shows you every fancy trick up its sleeve. Instead, take Victoria, a thunderous German thriller, which makes the rare gesture in its closing credits of crediting the cameraman, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, even before its director, Sebastian Schipper. The reasons are obvious, as soon as you settle in. From the opening moment in a strobe-bedazzled nightclub, to the last image of a nearly empty street at dawn, the film gives us a single 134-minute-long take, roving across some 22 of the German capital’s locations. It’s entirely free of cuts, digitally concealed or otherwise. Schipper and his crew – we have their word for this – started the camera at 4.40am on April 27, 2014, and ran it without interruption until 6.54am. In between, we get a euphoric city symphony; a giddy, first-flush love story; a panicky gangland ultimatum; a coke-addled bank heist; a breakneck getaway; a naked dawn rave; a bullet-strewn showdown; a nerve-frying hostage situation; and then some. Victoria is many films for your buck, back to back. The remarkable thing is what a kinetic, genre-hopping rollercoaster it takes us on without the benefit of cinema’s most basic safety net: the ability to yell “cut”, print what you’ve got, and move on. For an hour or so, it has a stumbly, all-nighter quality, the bleary authenticity and rooftop talk of a poignant urban ballad. Spanish actress Laia Casta plays the heroine, a single girl called Victoria, new to the city, who falls in with a quartet of tough guys from the neighbourhood. One, Sonne (Frederick Lau) is a softie at heart, clearly waiting to make his move. His best friend Boxer (Franz Rogowski), meanwhile, has done hard time for assault. These are people we get to know in a drunken, blissed-out state, before a night to remember turns into one they’d much rather forget. Right in the middle, the film pulls its most wrenching handbrake turn, and all you can do is cling on for dear life. No one’s thinking straight: stern critics of genre logic will object to some of the more high-wire developments. But the film is about fallibility, and it flails compellingly around with its ensemble, not so much failing to do the right thing as forgetting, in its restlessly hyperactive state, that there even is such a thing. You become aware of the physical demands on the actors, and the astonishing work they’re putting in. Casta makes Victoria a refreshingly unpredictable heroine who rarely puts her own safety first: despite summoning remarkable ingenuity at points, she’s best seen as something of a basket case, not just a nice girl taken for a ride. And Lau is just wonderful – his ringleader toughness a carapace for a wounded, romantic soul. Cast, director and crew went through all of this three times, and chose the third take, after goodness knows how much pre-planning, logistical fine-tuning, location hassles and whatnot. The dialogue was almost wholly improvised, from a 12-page script. And the film doesn’t look cheap, hasty, scratchy or amateurish. It looks like peak Michael Mann. Perhaps the lasting coup is how quickly you stop handing out mere difficulty marks for technique, and adjust to this exhilaratingly fluid way of telling a story. Grøvlen’s camera commits so completely to being in the moment that it’s something you can’t help but adopt as your own point of view – an accomplice or tagalong, bringing up the rear. Video-gamers talk of a “first-person shooter”, in which you see what the screen sees, as if lifted directly into a bullet-strewn environment. This is the same thing, except that the experience isn’t just out of your own control – it conjures the amazingly durable illusion of being out of everybody’s.
Tim Robey, The Telegraph, 31 March 2016
Alfred Hitchcock, one of the first directors to experiment with “continuous action”, famously decided it was an artistic dead end. He said: “No doubt about it; films must be cut.” To which Germany’s Sebastian Schipper would presumably say: “Pish!” Schipper’s Berlin-set thriller consists of a single take which begins at 4.30am in a nightclub. On her way out Victoria (Laia Costa), a lonely, Spanish gamine, gets chatting to a cheeky group of local boys led by Sonne (Frederick Lau). During the next couple of hours Costa and Lau climb ladders in the dark, race around in a car, get shot at, giggle and keep up a stream of mostly improvised lines (in pidgin English). And somehow Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, even when trailing behind, manages to stay one step ahead. Fictional films shot in real time tend to be either implausible, dull or best viewed when wasted. The second half of this movie is a mixture of all three (once the kisses and bang-bangs start you realise you’re watching a sub-par take on Godard’s Breathless). But Victoria’s first half is a joy. Costa (who’s 31 but looks 13) is a wrenching cross between Björk and The Dreamlife of Angels’s Elodie Bouchez. Lau, 26, is as rawly charming as the young Jeff Bridges. The pair are obviously bright, too. The dialogue they dreamt up over a few weeks of rehearsals effortlessly trumps the polished stuff most Hollywood screenwriters churn out. Meanwhile, the precisely woozy camerawork from 36-year-old Brandth (who shot the mesmeric Rams) amps up the febrile mood. The loveliest bit takes place in an empty café, with a drunk Sonne trying to impress an equally addled Victoria by prankishly playing the piano. She then sits before the keys and delivers an incredible performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. Costa’s agitated silhouette is hypnotic. So is Sonne’s stunned face. Contrast this sequence with the one in Richard Gere’s most recent movie, Time Out of Mind, where a farcical turn on a piano is followed by a sublime exhibition. Gere was really playing the piano while Costa was faking it — yet the use of music in Victoria feels infinitely more true. This is a silkily fierce mood poem about how hard it is to stand out from the crowd (even if you have money, but especially if you’re poor and working class). After hearing Victoria play the waltz Sonne gasps: “It was like you’re telling a story!” Schipper and his young team may not be up there with Hitchcock but they tell a good story. When it comes to pain, these kids cut to the chase.
Charlotte O'Sullivan, Evening Standard, 31 Mar 2016
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Total Number of Responses: 62
Film Score (0-5): 3.85