★ ★ ★ ★
The advent of digital film has opened the door to the production of actual “one-shot” movies, something that would have been impossible on celluloid. Alfred Hitchcock, for example, wanted to make his 1948 thriller Rope look like one continuous take, but the length of film reels forced the director to rely on skillful editing to stitch together a handful of long takes instead. The 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman tried to emulate Hitchcock: The movie has the appearance of a continuous shot, but was indeed edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, who used seamless digital effects to create the illusion of no cuts. With that in mind, German director Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is a wondrous technical achievement. He and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen have made a dazzling, no CGI, one-shot, one-take film that’s a testament to the awe-inducing possibilities of cinema.
Moving through the throbbing bass and crowds of a Berlin nightclub, the unflinching camera focuses on beautiful Spanish transplant Victoria (Laia Costa) as she prepares to head home for the night. On her way out of the club, she runs into a charismatic group of four local Berliners celebrating a birthday — Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuß (Maximilian Mauff). Although it takes some convincing, Victoria agrees to stay out long past her curfew, following the men to get more booze and cigarettes and head to the rooftop of their nearby apartment to continue the night. She even begins a quiet romance with Sonne, and the pair discuss the beautiful city around them and how it differs from the “real” Berlin that the men grew up in.
She also learns that Boxer was recently released from prison for an unspecified crime, and that he owes a debt of gratitude to a connected crime boss who provided him with protection inside the joint. Boxer soon receives a mysterious phone call and learns that this debt needs to be paid back immediately, in the wee hours of the morning. With Victoria’s morning shift at a local café rapidly approaching, Sonne agrees to accompany her to the restaurant before he returns to help the men with the shady business deal. After more flirting at the café, Sonne is ready to depart and join his pals. However, Boxer screeches up to the restaurant in a stolen car, claiming that the job can only be completed with four members and Fuß has been rendered useless after a night of heavy drinking. He then bashfully asks Victoria to join them for the quick mission, promising that they’ll drive her back to the café before her shift begins; to Sonne’s surprise, she agrees.
Victoria is tasked with being the driver of the stolen vehicle, and takes the group to a meet-up at a shady parking garage. There, the dangerous crime boss and his henchmen detail the mission: the robbery of a large safe-deposit box at a local bank. Terrified and confused, the group attempt to decline, but they are forced to comply when the crime syndicate threaten Victoria’s life. She is now inescapably involved as the getaway driver, setting into motion the movie’s heart-pounding and chaotic second half.
Despite the long buildup to the heist portion of the film, there’s a creeping sense of anticipation pulsing through Victoria. The early scenes also contain an unexpected amount of downtime, swelling the picture to almost two and a half hours in total. Without the benefit of cuts to let the story breathe, certain scenes in Victoria tend to drag on — most notably, the courtship between Victoria and Sonne in the café during the first third. And as the gang transform into thieves, some of the character motivations become vague and/or implausible. We’re led to believe that Victoria is a timid fish-out-of-water who’s slowly opening up to Sonne, but as the plan for the heist comes into focus, she turns into the voice of reason for the nervous soon-to-be robbers. When that plan begins to go south, the actors take center stage as the camera merely follows along with their frenzied attempts to salvage the heist. One can’t help but wonder about the level of logistical planning happening offscreen at all times, with production coordinators readying the Berlin locations for the feverish action to come.
Victoria earned a huge haul (including the equivalent of Best Picture) at the German Film Awards this past June, and was short-listed to be Germany’s representative for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars before being disqualified for having too much English dialogue. Since only a handful of true one-shot features exist, Victoria is worth the price of admission purely as a marvel of inventive filmmaking. But the superb improvisational acting by Costa, Lau, and Rogowski help elevate the daring and effective ideas behind the film, turning it into something more than just a clever exercise.