Victoria (Costa) is a young Spanish woman newly arrived in Berlin. Bumping into a group of local youths, she accepts their invite to hang out — with surprising, even dangerous, consequences.
No-one likes a spoiler, but when it comes to co-writer/director Sebastian Schipper’s extraordinary film, one reveal it pays to know about in advance is that it was shot in one take. All two hours, 18 minutes of it. For, so faultlessly is it executed, if you didn’t know, you might not even realise. And it’s something worth appreciating, because it’s not as though Schipper limits the scope of the action. Shifting from club dance floor to street to late-night shop to apartment block to — well, you get the point — the plot moves cast and crew across seven locations; even, at one point, taking them up a ladder, with nary a judder. And they only had to restart filming twice.
Once Berlin starts to reveal its darker nooks and crannies, it transforms into a cracking thriller that confounds at every turn.
We first meet Victoria (Laia Costa) dancing alone (but quite happily) in a Berlin club, the beats pounding and lights strobing to dizzying effect. Leaving, she bumps into four local lads loitering outside who invite her to be shown round the “real” Berlin. She accepts, and so begins an off-kilter adventure that brings to mind Before Sunrise — if Ethan Hawke’s Jesse had been of considerably more dubious character.
The original script for Victoria was just 12 pages long; most two-hour screenplays come in at around 120. Providing the cast with a story arc and character outlines, improvisation from the talented young actors fleshed out the rest. The result is a raft of naturalistic, utterly convincing performances from all, but particularly Costa as the smart, fun, unpredictable Victoria and Frederick Lau as Sonne, unofficial gang leader but with a soft, sensitive soul hidden beneath the cocky bluster. Instantly drawn to each other — even as all the boys josh for her attention — there’s a sense that, once this crazy night is over, they could have something special. Behind the camera, the work of cinematographer Sturla Brandth is astonishing — despite the technical demands of shooting just one take, often on the move, in and out of cars, up and down stairs, he never sacrifices careful framing and composition. In acknowledgement of that, his name appears before director Schipper’s in the credits.
Of course, innovation is for nothing if the content isn’t there. Happily, not only is Victoria a thoroughly engaging character piece, once Berlin starts to reveal its darker nooks and crannies, it transforms into a cracking thriller that confounds at every turn.
So much more than a one-take gimmick movie, Victoria is a stunning cinematic achievement. Full of twists that feel authentic and believable characters, it grips from the first compelling frame to the last.