The new German drama Victoria from director Sebastian Schipper is the story of a young Spanish woman temporarily living and working in Berlin. She finds herself caught in the middle of an early morning robbery, and it’s all recorded in one single, real-time shot.
Running at a lengthy two hours and twenty minutes – a long time for any movie, let alone one that never cuts away or edits a moment – Victoria (an appealing Laia Costa) is on a three-month working visit to Germany. She’s a waitress at a local café bar and even though she speaks no German, her English is ok. She communicates with most around her in either English or, presumably, in Spanish, though there’s never a moment when her native language is used.
Our introduction to the young twenty-something is in a strobe lighted nightclub where she appears to be dancing alone until four in the morning. With a job that requires her to open café doors at seven, Victoria has but a few hours to take a quick nap then be ready to switch on the coffee machines. But the nap never comes. As she leaves the club and the pulsating music, she’s approached by four guys who appear to be doing nothing other than hanging out on Berlin street corners in the early hours, waiting for something to happen or for someone to entertain them.
The four guys are lead by the suspiciously friendly Sonne (Frederick Lau) who with his three loutish buddies appear to be doing nothing other than killing time when most others are asleep. They flirt with Victoria and eventually entice her to drink stolen beer on the roof of a building which they claim is their home, even though we instinctively know not to believe anything they say.
An hour passes – in real time – with Victoria appearing to have fun, flirting with Sonne and sharing bottles of beer and a joint with his three friends. Nothing really happens, and other than trivial, playful banter, nothing is really said, though in a single and interestingly revealing moment, we learn that Victoria has studied piano for sixteen years, practicing seven hours a day. “You have no life, you have no friends” she tells Sonne after she surprises both him and us by performing an excerpt from The Mephisto Waltz on the café bar piano.
But something takes shape after the sixty minute mark. The guys need to fulfill a favor for a Berlin bad man (Andre M. Hennicke) and it involves robbing a bank the moment it opens. Feeling somehow connected to her new four friends, Victoria volunteers to be the driver. “I’ll come with you,” she tells them in a moment of unexplainable recklessness that will change everything for the young woman.
Because of its technique, the single camera shot follows Victoria and her new found four friends everywhere they go – across streets, down hallways, up elevators, in and out of vehicles – but it soon becomes irksome. Following characters means we’re continually seeing them from behind or looking over their shoulders. We’re almost always at their backs. There’s rarely a moment when we get to enjoy a full body shot of anyone; we simply hover, catching glimpses of faces or hearing snatches of conversation. And it’s an active camera.
Cinematographer Sturia Brandth Grovlen is the real star of the film as he carefully maneuvers his movements to effectively slide in and out of cars without getting in the way, running up and down staircases and following Victoria at every turn. As an experiment, it’s a remarkable achievement, one that students of film will find fun in studying and savoring, but for most others, Victoria is a tough sit-through. Long before its bloated running time concludes, you may find yourself clutching theatre armrests in order to steady yourself. Depending on levels of personal tolerance, the jerky hand-held will often get the better of you.
Dialog is, for the most part, ad-libbed. The original script was only twelve pages consisting mostly of direction and explanations of where characters needed to be. When you see the young woman with Sonne and his three friends, laughing, drinking and discussing what they want to do next, it’s all off the cuff, and considering the film’s length, that’s impressive.
Sensing that the four men will eventually lead Victoria down the wrong path makes for a frustrating time. Plus, it doesn’t help that Victoria seems so willing to be lead. Despite the unique setup, no matter how interesting the film’s technical aspects are, this is a long time to spend in the company of people you can see doing everything wrong at every turn. And with a film where its first hour is full of conversational banalities, this is hardly something to willingly revisit.
Directors tend to forget when shooting with a hand-held that the widescreen film will be shown not on a TV monitor but on the bigger canvas of a movie theatre. Don’t sit in the first ten rows.
MPAA Rating: Unrated Length: 140 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)