Victoria is a stunt, but it’s a neat stunt that shapes and informs the movie – an integral part of the story. Director Sebastian Schipper had to try three times before he succeeded in making this 134-minute movie about a robbery told in real time and shot in one take, with no cuts. The film begins at a Berlin nightclub, where the camera finds Victoria (Laia Costa) dancing by herself to electronica underneath strobe lights. She wanders to the bar to get a drink, then decides to leave. On her way out, she walks past a group of guys who call out to her.
They follow her outside and strike up the sort of easy conversation that often happens near the end of a long night of partying, when everyone is tipsy and relaxed and bolder with their flirtations, because the sun is coming up soon so what is there to lose?
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One of the men, Sonne (Frederick Lau), catches Victoria’s eye. He’s friendly, funny and non-threatening. She’s from Madrid; he and his friends are locals. They all speak English, but the guys speak to each other in German, so we’re able to understand what they’re saying (via subtitles) while Victoria does not. Another one of the men, Boxer (Franz Rogowski), reveals he might have spent some time in prison. “I’m not a bad guy,” he says. “I just did a bad thing.” What he did exactly is not made clear.
Schipper’s camera follows the group as they wander the deserted streets, clash with some strangers, berate the cops and smoke pot on a rooftop. Eventually, Victoria says she must go. She needs to be at work in about an hour — she’s a waitress at a cafe — and can’t be late. Sonne offers her a ride. When they arrive, she invites him in for coffee. Some more flirting ensues. Victoria is smitten. And then Boxer and the other two guys return, anxious and frazzled. They have something important to do, somewhere to be. It’s urgent.
Editing is one of the most formidable tools of cinematic storytelling: Precise cutting can elevate a good movie to greatness, and clunky editing makes bad films worse. Shooting an entire picture without cuts is like trying to write a book without using the letter “T” — the concept seems destined to fail — but Victoria succeeds because its story rests on the passage of time and an accruing sense of alarm. The fact that Victoria and Sonne barely know each other (we’ve spent as much time with them as they have with each other) factors into what’s to follow. Like Victoria, we’re not entirely sure how far we can trust him.
As the sun begins to rise, and the characters are mired in increasingly dire straits, Victoria lets us share their dread with an uncommon intimacy. As they race in and out of elevators, drive around in cars, run through apartment buildings and hotels and exchange gunfire with police, the lack of cutaways becomes a bottle-neck of tension. There’s no release, no exhale. Here is a crime drama that punches you in the gut, full on, and dares you not to blink.
Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit.
Director: Sebastian Schipper.
Screenwriters: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper, Eike Frederik Schulz.
An Adopt Films release. Running time: 134 minutes. In English and German with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, drug use. Opens Friday Oct. 16 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema