“Victoria’s one truly outstanding trait can often turn out to be its biggest weakness, and that places it in an odd position as a film.”
by Ken B.
I should first acknowledge how it’s possible to admire a film’s production process and not admire the final product as much. Certainly, director Sebastian Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen had a daunting task before them in shooting a movement-heavy heist film over one unbroken 138 minute shot, but in a way this defining feature of Victoria is also its greatest downfall. By discounting key time cheats that would have helped the pace of the plot, Schipper basically ensures that everything is written out in visual cursive when shorthand would be more appropriate. The necessary tracking of all individual movements and motion is a technical approach which catches up to the flow of the narrative.
That narrative focuses on Victoria (Laia Costa), a young woman from Madrid who has recently moved to Berlin. While she earns money working at a small café, Victoria remains largely unfamiliar with the German language and doesn’t really know anyone in the city. After spending an evening in a small nightclub, she leaves at around 4 a.m. to begin her shift at work. However, on the way out, she runs into an eccentric group of men, who go by the names Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff). They offer to show her around, and introduce her to what local life is really like, but as the hours tick by, Victoria realizes that her newfound acquaintances are on the cusp of pulling off a high-stakes bank robbery, and she has no choice but to witness things take a turn for the chaotic.
The film’s story is rather intriguing, and there’s material there that would make for a solid, tight movie. But in the process of pursuing this one-take conceit, Schipper effectively lengthens the proceedings to the point of minimizing much of the tension which could have resulted from well-placed editing. The early morning hours of Sunday, April 27, 2014, saw him, his cast, and his crew swing throughout two neighborhoods in the German capital, and that’s certainly a technical achievement, but I question how well the screenplay is served by that execution. (Those who have read my thoughts on another single-shot opus, Russian Ark, will be familiar with the tone of my criticism). Schipper says that he shot a version of the movie which was traditionally cut (although only from location-to-location). I’d be curious to see it.
Even though there is a problem in following irrelevant conversations as characters languidly move from Point A to Point B, at least the characters are brought to life in fully charged and intensely devoted performances from the actors portraying them, with mostly improvised dialogue to boot. Laia Costa’s bewildered Victoria provides for a continually engaging protagonist, and even though some of the character’s decisions seem rather inexplicable, Costa’s deeply human, worn-down acting sufficiently contextualizes her actions. Lau is compulsively watchable as the catatonic ringleader. The rest of the supporting cast is satisfactory but fully unmemorable.
Victoria’s one truly outstanding trait can often turn out to be its biggest weakness, and that places it in an odd position as a film. One of the defining assets of the movies is how it can “cheat time” in ways that a live visual medium, such as a play, cannot. As a result, a film can explore bigger stories in more large-scale locations. Schnipper’s attempt at essentially designing a filmed play is incredibly advantageous, but what comes out of the project is more of a curiosity or an experiment than a fully formed and timed motion picture. I am in awe of what the people behind this movie accomplished from a logistic point of view. I am impressed by the energy the actors brought to the screen. Everything else, however, is more middle-of-the-road.