German drama Victoria has received plenty of attention due to the fact it was shot in one continuous, 135-minute-long take, and it’s certainly a fine technical achievement, with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen deservedly given top billing during the end credits (a space generously vacated by the director, Sebastian Schipper). The action – which is filtered through Grøvlen’s hand-held camera for the duration – follows the titular Spanish woman, played by Laia Costa, as she endures a night of surprises in Berlin. When we first encounter her she’s alone, dancing in a basement club; by the door she meets the charismatic Sonne (Frederick Lau), as well as three of his drunk friends, who manage to convince her to join them for a party before events take a sinister left-turn and Victoria becomes embroiled in something far removed from the post-club wind-down.
The five characters form the basis of the cast, with only a dozen or so other minor speaking parts included, and much of the dialogue is improvised, largely veering between English and German. Victoria’s instant warmth towards the guys she meets is unlikely at best, so at an early stage it becomes apparent that this is the kind of story that will regularly require the viewer to suspend disbelief; the main character makes a series of ridiculous and rash decisions during the next couple of hours, each one chipping away at the film’s credibility, and although it’s definitely possible to sit back and go with the flow I dare say it’ll be an unsurmountable problem for some viewers. However, those who are able to forgive Victoria for some of the protagonist’s more dubious actions – or indeed the way that the authorities in the film conveniently ignore all of the CCTV footage at their disposal – will find much to enjoy: the story takes several twists and turns as dawn breaks and night turns into morning, while the proximity of the camera to the actors means you’re right in the heart of the action throughout, which peaks sporadically and effectively. A breathless foot chase through an estate is a highlight, while the two scenes set inside the nightclub capture the wild dancefloor abandon found in Berlin’s dingy techno clubs very well (the second of these forgoing the diegetic music of the DJ for Nils Frahm’s delicate and beautiful piano-driven score).
You leave the cinema with plenty of admiration for the work of the cast and crew, who managed to get through three uninterrupted takes on three separate nights between 4.30am and 7.00am (the second was the best, and the one used for the film, apparently). Goodness knows how many hours of planning and rehearsals were involved beforehand, while it’s also worth mentioning again that the main characters converse primarily in English rather than German (or Spanish), which makes the quality of the improvisation and the collective achievement in getting through to the end even more impressive. Schipper and his cinematographer use the geography of the city well, restricting the characters to short journeys by car, by bike and on foot around the areas of Kreuzberg and Mitte, and ordinary locations – tower blocks, streets, a shop, a cafe – are put to good use. All told it’s a very impressive and immersive drama, so long as your patience with the main character doesn’t run out in the first thirty minutes.
Directed by: Sebastian Schipper.
Written by: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Frederik Schulz.
Starring: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit, Max Mauff.
Cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.
Editing: Olivia Neergaard-Holm.
Music: Nils Frahm.
Running Time: 138 minutes.