'Victoria': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
It's a long shot but it might just work

Director Sebastian Schipper's Berlinale prize contender is an audacious heist thriller shot in real time in a single take on the streets of the German capital

Filmed in a single mobile shot lasting over two hours, actor-turned-director Sebastian Schipper's Berlinale competition entry is a dazzling stylistic experiment which largely pays off. Rising Catalan star Laia Costa plays the eponymous heroine, a disillusioned young Spanish exile looking for thrills in Berlin. Inevitably, she soon finds herself out of her depth. Barely an hour after meeting on the street, a rowdy gang of amateur criminals enlist Victoria to help them commit an armed bank robbery in a chaotic haze of booze and drugs. What could possibly go wrong?

Padding out a minimal 12-page script with heavily improvised dialogue, Victoria takes a while to emerge from its fuzzy-headed, freewheeling first act. But it repays our patience when it shifts gear from Richard Linklater-style talk-heavy Eurodrama to heart-racing, adrenaline-pumped heist thriller. With one foot in the indie margins and another in the multiplex mainstream, commercial prospects could be healthy if Schipper and his marketing team can generate buzz in both demographics.

Victoria dances alone among the seething, strobe-blasted bodies of a subterranean techno club in central Berlin. With dawn approaching, she leaves the club to start work at a cafe, but instead she runs into Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his pals Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff). Falling into flirtatious conversation with Sonne, Victoria joins the boys on a nearby rooftop to chat, drink and smoke weed.

Unfolding in real time, the group's conversation mostly takes place in faltering English. It initially feels random and aimless, but builds to a pre-arranged meeting with professional gangster Andi (Andre Hennicke), who makes an offer they cannot refuse. Boxer owes Andi a favor from their shared time in jail, so now he must repay him by robbing a bank that very morning. The heist goes surprisingly smoothly, but the aftermath is a crazed crescendo of mistakes and disasters, some of them fatal.

Costa gives a commendably committed performance, sacrificing some of her pixie-ish fashion-model beauty to sweaty, spotty, grungy, spittle-flecked realism. An emerging new force in German cinema and television, 25-year-old Lau is no pin-up but he radiates a dangerous, streetwise, cocksure charisma reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando. He is convincing as the gang's alpha male, turning his crumple-faced charm on Victoria while keeping his loose-cannon buddies in line.

Victoria is not the first movie based on a single-shot conceit, but many feted previous examples have used visual sleight of hand, from Rope to Russian Ark to Birdman. With its long takes and lawless urban milieu, there are echoes here of Gaspar Noe's lurid revenge thriller Irreversible and Tom Tykwer's Berlin-set Run Lola Run, in which Schipper actually appeared, though this film is more linear and less formally tricksy than either.

Schipper stays impressively faithful to his purist aesthetic, shooting guerrilla-style in natural light and shaky hand-held close-up. But he sometimes uses music for tonal and textural variation, allowing the electronic score by Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm to drown out dialogue in places. When the gang returns to the techno club for a post-heist celebration, Frahm's soothing electro-orchestral pieces prove especially effective, washing over the throbbing dance beats like a flood of endorphins.

It is a testament to the immersive immediacy of Victoria that the scale of its technical achievement only really dawns on you afterwards. Starting at 4.30am, Schipper shot continuously for over two hours in 22 locations with 150 extras, six assistant directors and three sound crews, yet we never catch a glimpse of the military-style off-screen choreography all this must have required. On a more banal level, the two leads are on screen for pretty much the entire duration. Did nobody require even a quick bathroom break?

With hindsight, the boozy and ill-prepared bank-heist premise of Victoria may stretch plausibility to breaking point. But even if Schipper's single-shot thriller is essentially one long technical stunt, it is still a bravura experiment and a kinetic, frenetic, sense-swamping rollercoaster ride.

Production company: Monkeyboy
Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit, Max Mauff
Director: Sebastian Schipper
Screenwriters: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Eike Schulz
Producers: Jan Dressler, Sebastian Schipper, David Keitsch, Anatol Nitschke, Catherine Baikousis, Christiane Dressler
Cinematographer: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
Casting: Suse Marquardt, Lucie Lenox
Music: Nils Frahm
Sales company: The Match Factory, Cologne
Unrated, 140 minutes

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