Sebastian Schipper's crime thriller 'Victoria' is a wild-ride across the Berlin city streets at night, shot all in one take. When Victoria, a young woman from Madrid, meets Sonne in a nightclub she follows him and his friends into a bank robbery they're doing to repay a favour that's owed and being collected that very night.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: German actor turned director-writer Sebastian Schipper’s virtuoso single-take story of a wild night out in Berlin is an exhilarating blast. It lifts the viewer by the scruff of the neck in its pulsating opening seconds of nightclub trance ecstasy, and it doesn’t lose its grip until two and a quarter hours later when its eponymous protagonist limps off devastated in the empty dawn streets, her life changed forever.
To outline in detail exactly what happens to this fun-seeking Spanish traveller working in a Berlin coffee shop risks spoiling the enjoyment, as the twists are spread artfully throughout the narrative, so watch for a spoiler alert.
Schipper had an early acting role in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, a breakthrough film for the reinvigorated German film industry, so it’s perhaps not surprising to find that film’s apparent influence is here – in the sense of both its breathless rhythmic pulse and a plot device of a young woman romantically involved with an amateur criminal who is threatened by the more nasty professional variety.
An even greater story influence appears to be the 1980s American thrillers After Hours (directed by Martin Scorsese) and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, in which flirtations with newcomers led to dangerous nights of the soul.
We meet Victoria (extraordinary newcomer Laia Costa in what should be a star-making performance) when she’s dancing alone in a nightclub, ecstatic in the sense of being lost in the tribal pulse (and possibly on the drug, but also drinking alcohol, so maybe not). Encountering a cheerful, thickset young guy named Sonne (Frederick Lau), she meets his three mates outside. They light-heartedly flirt with stealing a car before being chased off by the owner, and they saunter together down the street, bantering amiably and mindlessly, ending up on the roof of a local building.
When they reach the café she’s tasked with opening at 7am, we learn something totally unexpected about her background. This is an amazing scene that shifts the film in a new direction, just as the ceaseless banter (in both English and German) has run its course. From here onwards, the film moves into its much darker second and third acts via a somewhat hurriedly set-up piece in which – SPOILER ALERT – she agrees to go along with the boys as the driver on a criminal mission at the behest of a domineering gangster to whom one of them owes a favour.
Her behaviour from here onwards is not always entirely plausible. While Schipper has painted Victoria at this point as someone who has come to Berlin to throw off the chains of her formerly burdened life, a newly freed spirit happy to take risks because she now has little to lose, her willingness to go along with such a dangerous endeavour with a gang of blokes she has only just met (and of whom one is an ex-convict) is nonetheless a bit hard to swallow.
However, by this stage it’s become clear the film has turned from a realist drama into a crime thriller – and thrillers virtually by definition tend to expect the audience to overlook a degree of implausibility.
Alfred Hitchcock famously complained about the ‘logicians and plausibles’ who insisted on absolute narrative credibility. His films were often littered with unlikely events, but the audience went along with them because he made them want to. That also applies here. So naturalistic and believable are the performances of Coster and Lau (who apparently improvised their dialogue), and the film feels so immediate with its virtuoso one-shot camera work and sense of real time, many viewers will feel like this reviewer that the ride is too irresistible to be too worried by joy-killing logic.
Victoria is an electrifyingly intense ride, its single-take form much more than the ‘stunt’ glibly suggested by an otherwise admiring trade press. As in Birdman, it creates an intense feeling of ‘you are there’ that conventionally edited films, even great ones, can never quite reach. It’s not about technique – it’s about the feeling and the experience, and here both are vivid.