Victoria takes you on a bittersweet odyssey through the streets of Berlin at 4 in the morning, hopping genres from indie improv to heist thriller to love story. What makes this film extraordinary is its technical daring: it was filmed in one continuous take, with no cuts or added CGI.
Victoria is not the first movie based on a single-shot conceit, but previous examples such as Hitchcock’s Rope and Inarritu’s Birdman have used visual sleight of hand to achieve their end-results. Here, German director Sebastian Schipper shot in natural light using a hand-held camera for over two hours in 22 locations with 150 extras, six assistant directors and three sound crews. Dialogue was mostly improvised from a script of only 12 pages and it took only three attempts to get the shot Schipper was satisfied with.
It is a testament to the immersive immediacy of Victoria that the scale of its technical achievement only really dawns on you afterwards. The film works as a straightforwardly engaging drama, with strong performances from its two leads, especially Spanish actress Laia Costa as the lonely Victoria, whose rollercoaster journey requires a varied emotional palette.
We first see her dancing in a subterranean Berlin nightclub, amidst pounding techno and strobe-lighting. With dawn approaching, Victoria leaves the club to start work at a cafe, but instead she runs into a group of drunken lads, Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his pals Boxer, Blinker and Fuss. Falling into playful conversation with Sonne, Victoria tags along with their nocturnal hi jinx and shenanigans.
As Victoria speaks no German, the group’s conversation mostly takes place in faltering English. It initially feels slightly dull and meandering, but eventually builds to a meeting with a professional gangster Andi, who marks out his nastiness by calling her ‘Bitch’. Boxer owes Andi a favor from their shared time in jail, so now he must repay him by robbing a bank that very morning. The heist and its aftermath inject the film with a much-needed hectic energy which takes it over finishing line.
The rather sweet and old-fashioned romance between Victoria and the charismatic Sonne, who looks like a young Liam Neeson, is given psychological depth by what feels like the film’s central, and most scripted, scene. She invites him into her café for a drink and plonks on the piano, before teasing her about playing the triangle. Victoria sits down and plays a passionate and virtuoso rendition of Lizst’s Mephisto Waltz, before explaining how she ‘was not good enough’ to continue at the Conservatory: years of practicing up to seven hours a day had left her lonely and worn out.
Elsewhere Schipper uses music for tonal and textural variation, allowing the electronic score by composer Nils Frahm to drown out dialogue in places. When the gang returns to the nightclub for a post-heist celebration, his mellow soundtrack undercuts the frantic dancing and hints at the sadness that lies ahead.
A final thought: at the start of the film Victoria tries to use the nightclub toilet, but is told to join the queue. In the next two and a quarter hours, despite all the Schnapps and beer, she never does get to use the loo – a commitment that goes beyond the call of duty and beyond the call of nature.