The one-take film is less a genre unto itself than a strange merger of theatre and film, every moment running with an underlying tension for the actors and cinematographer, each passing minute renders the possibility of a mistake even more terrifying – it might be the closest cinema will get to a high-rise tightrope walk. And whilst films like Birdman, with its digitally stitched together long takes, have turned the one-take film into act of publicity over artistry, Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria reclaims some of that lost ground, wherein the technical achievement, and paradoxical precision and looseness of the camera, raise the film above its mostly conventional heist narrative.
Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Madridian woman working as a barista in a Berlin café, meets a group of four drunk men as she’s leaving an underground club. Led by the affable Sonne (Frederick Lau), the group manage to convince Victoria to go have a drink with them, despite the fact she’s just seen them try to steal a car in front of her and has work in a few hours. The reasons for her curiosity come later, and all form part of an identity shaped by uncertainty and rejection. She’s drawn to the men because they’re so closely bonded to one another, roaming the Berlin streets they call home as a shabbily thrown together gang. Boxer (Franz Rogowski) is an ex-con, Blinker (Burak Yigit) used to steal mopeds, and the very intoxicated Fuss (Max Mauff), made headlines at eleven years old after stealing a truck. Sonne, whose particular skillset becomes apparent midway through the film, takes Victoria back to her café, where their readily palpable intimacy is stifled by a call from Boxer; the man who ensured his protection in prison needs a job done that night, and Victoria ends up filling in for the blotto Fuss, as their driver.
Like last year’s Sydney Film Festival competition entry Fish & Cat, Schipper shot the film, in its entirety, three times, yet where Shahram Mokri used a handful of very cleverly hidden cuts, Schipper seems to have done Victoria without any. It’s no wonder that the first name that appears in the end credits is that of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who shot the recent Un Certain Regard winner Rams and the impressive underseen 2013 documentary The Agreement), who has done an incredible job in not only vividly realising this sense of motion, both as microcosm and macrocosm, but also in actually framing so many wonderful standalone shots; the difference between the warmly-lit intimacy of the piano-playing sequence and the thrilling realism of a panicked escape through the streets could come from two entirely different films. Therein lies much of the point of Victoria, actually; the script by Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Eike Schulz skillfully weaves a tale of instant attraction, from a club to a café, only to suddenly lurch into an entirely different genre just as the film seems to be working its way up to romantic fulfillment. Don’t worry, though, the film doesn’t construct its bank heist as a means of representing the dangers of falling in love on the dancefloor, Schipper and co. just seem to enjoy reflecting romantic and narrative tension, and delaying narrative satisfaction for the viewer.
Not unlike Tom Tykwer’s also Berlin-set Run Lola Run, there’s some temporal fudging in this film, a heightened sense of time passing moreso than a structural device.1 It’s all part of the film’s focus on perspective, less about narrative than a sensory experience. It goes some way in explaining the conventionality of the last half-hour of the film and the slight overreach in terms of character logic, which is lifted considerably by the immediacy of the camerawork, instilling in its audience the same panic of the characters. Also noteworthy is the film’s score, provided by German minimalist composer Nils Frahm which, although used too sparingly, does make for some very impressive sequences, including a club scene in the film’s second half, in which Frahm’s music creates this tonal dissonance with the frenetic celebrations of those inside, only to drop out into a DJ Koze tune.
The successful merger of a compelling romantic narrative and a tense bank heist would have been enough to make Schipper’s debut an interesting genre variation, but it’s the sheer ambition of the one-take, pulled off in a virtually seamless manner, that makes Victoria one of the more interesting thrillers of the year. It not only grips you as soon as the heist narrative emerges, but it also successfully endears you to these characters, whose development and identity is forged in action rather than dialogue. The cherry on top of all this, then, is that whilst watching the plot unfurl, you’re always hyper aware of the process of filmmaking, looking for hidden cuts or signs of camera operators. In that vein, like Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, Schipper’s Victoria is as much an engaging film, but also an ode to the cinematic process itself.
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