It is unusual for a film’s tag line to be so accurate, succinct and give away nothing in terms of plot and character, yet demands that you discover it for yourself: ‘One Girl. One City. One Night. One Take.’ Victoria is a special film on a number of levels. Technically, artistically and delivering terrific performances under a fair degree of pressure which means that the time from the director calling ‘action’ for the first shot and ‘cut’ at that take’s end, and indeed the film’s close, is over two hours. For the entire running time the audience is immersed in both the story and its characters, as you join them as an additional unseen member of a group, intimately following the situations they find themselves in as they wander through Berlin in real time. To add to the immediacy, the film is shot in a widescreen format, shunning the increasingly popular ‘mobile phone’ ratio to give you a very real sense of your own perspective within the composition.
Single take films have, of course, been made before. Hitchcock’s Rope (1949) needed to fake its single take in multiple reels because of the limit to the amount of celluloid that could be contained within a camera, and Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark (2002) was a revolutionary art project, but these were both filmed in much more controllable environments. Victoria uses the single take format and adds contemporary society, social issues and a real city as its location to produce a genre drama that becomes an audacious actors’ set piece. You might think that the whole concept couldn’t possibly work technically but it does, and they only took three takes to get it right, following months of preparation.
Victoria (Laia Costa) is from Madrid but is spending time in Berlin for a few months; she has a job and enjoys clubbing in the evening. After a night of dancing she leaves the club to open up at the café where she works in time for her shift to start, but outside she meets a group of friendly lads who are apparently breaking into a car. They quit as soon as she appears and they ask her to join them, saying they will show her some of their great city at night and, even though she suspects that they are petty criminals, she tags along. Sonne (Frederick Lau), in particular, has clearly taken to her, so she joins him, along with Boxer (Franz Rogowski), who ‘always causes trouble’, and Blinker (Burak Yigit) to celebrate the birthday of Fuß (Max Mauff). They head for a special rooftop party location to continue celebrations with drink, dance and drugs. Later, Sonne accompanies Victoria to the café to start her working day but, having declared that they are attracted to each other, matters start to go wrong. Boxer owes a gangster a debt following a spell in prison and the boys have to complete a short mission to acquire €50,000 due for collection at 7 a.m., not by legitimate means naturally. But Fuß is seriously ill after reacting to dubious substances so they need a driver to make up the four person gang demanded by the underworld boss. Victoria, believing Sonne’s brief statement, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you right now’, agrees to get behind the wheel for what is undoubtedly going to be a dangerous and unpredictable enterprise involving both crooks and cops.
‘I’m not a bad guy. I just did a bad thing.’
From the opening, with its strobe lighting and pounding electro-rave music as our heroine dances through the night, audiences can be assured that this is a roller-coaster ride that will include dance, drugs, drama and danger in its single breath-taking take. Indeed music forms an essential element of the film, from the throbbing beats of the club environment to the scene where Sonne and Victoria play the piano at the café, Victoria revealing that she had ambitions to become a pianist. Her superb performance cements the burgeoning romance between her and Sonne. But while music is important to the narrative (Nils Frahm providing an engaging yet unobtrusive soundtrack where diegetic music doesn’t form part of proceedings) to many the clear source of interest is the decision to make the film in a single take which offers the viewer a highly specialised perspective on events literally as they happen. And this is where the film plays off technically as we follow the characters through the streets, into different internal locations and even meandering upstairs onto a rooftop. When transport is involved we enter and drive in the car/taxi around the streets of Berlin alongside the protagonists, to the locations in the narrative and this provides a real sense of immediacy. The tension builds as the characters pull of their crime but, with the cops chasing, their situation become increasingly precarious. But this is not simply an achievement for cine technophiles, it’s a well constructed dramatic thriller which is matched by its pacey plot and sterling performances.
Extras on the DVD include a commentary track as well as casting scenes and camera tests which show us the evolution of the project and the work of the actors embracing their roles through improvisation. It is clear how the characters developed and it also depicts much camaraderie and humour amongst cast and crew. Victoria makes for essential viewing; it’s a compelling thriller, enhanced by its realistic implementation of characterisation as we encounter so many aspects of Berlin’s heady nightlife from cops to criminals, conflicts and clubbing.