The film opens in a nightclub: blaring techno music, and an intense, blinking light that consumes the whole screen. Light, dark, light, dark—very rapidly. (If you have epilepsy, you’ve been warned.) The director of this film, Sebastian Schipper, and his photographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, are letting us in on a secret here. They’re reminding us that cinema is nothing much more than a series of photographs stitched together and sped up—an elaborate trompe l’oeil. (Fernando Meirelles did similar in a great scene, also set in a nightclub, in City of God.) More than that: they’re reflecting the inside of their camera, starting up as the story begins, shudders opening and closing over the lens before they speed up so fast that we can’t notice them anymore. The photographs transform into film, and bodies writhing on the dance floor come into view. You could be forgiven for thinking that this scene is made of several quick takes, as would be the case with most movies. But no—this is one take, and the opening scene adopts a bracing irony when we realize that that one take is far from over. It goes on and on and on. In fact, it lasts the entire film. Yes, folks: this film is told in one take, lasting over two hours. Nay, it was filmed in one take, without the contrivance of editing. Schipper here does something astonishing: he shows us the illusion of film, and he makes us fall for it anyway. The construction he crafts is seamless.
The film is titled Victoria, and it is a masterpiece. Victoria (Laia Costa) is indeed the protagonist; the camera does not take long to find her on the dance floor, and it hardly strays from her thereafter. She is a Spanish girl in Berlin, maybe an exchange student, working in a café for four euros an hour, hopelessly naïve and easily swayed. On her way out of the nightclub, she runs into a quartet of uncooperative guys, led by Sonne (Frederick Lau), loitering in the early-morning streets. She catches them trying to jack a car and somehow takes a liking to them. She does not know German, so she talks with the guys in broken English—a universal language, here used in a primitive way to underlie primitive qualities and desires: intrigue, lust, greed, inexperience, lunacy, bluntness, desperation. She helps them shoplift some goodies and joins them in an impromptu roof party. Should Victoria really be around these men? They don’t seem dangerous, but do they have all their hinges on? The process of asking these questions is what draws us into the story. We are there with Victoria throughout as she makes one dubious decision after the other, and as the repercussions of each decision carry the story further and intensify the conflict. The film, as a single take in itself, is a total emotional investment; there is no turning away and no backing out. And about an hour in, at a moment when the story could end and Victoria wrap up the night in peace, it takes an abrupt shift that plunges her and the audience into an unholy nightmare.
Victoria is the film I’ve been at once anticipating and dreading for a while, the one-shot tour de force that would do what the very concept of the one-shot, I imagine, was invented to do—namely, to depict trauma and horror as unrelentingly as cinema can. First, we had Hitchcock’s Rope—not strictly a one-shot, but certainly a progenitor of the form, and not at all disappointing by the Master’s standards. Two generations later, we had Sokurov’s Russian Ark—mediocre, essentially a museum tour-cum-history lesson, but not without a devastating denouement. Then came Iñárritu’s Birdman—very well made, but far from its director’s best. Now, this—the apotheosis of the form thus far. Of course, too many cuts can be disorienting, but a montage with a measured pace and a moderate amount of cuts can imbue each cut with a sense of relief, of catharsis, of perfect timing fulfilled. There is no such relief here, only mounting dread as Victoria and the gang get drawn deeper into a maelstrom of their own making. There are moments, granted, where Victoria could walk away from it all and spare herself more agony, but she doesn’t. She sticks with her commitment and endures the shattering punishment. Why does she help out these guys who she barely knows, who got themselves into their mess? (I’ll give you one hint: there’s a protection racket involved.) Is she discovering a source of strength and stoicism buried within her, an urge to have a thrilling brush with danger and make her life more invigorating and unpredictable? Or is she just way out of her depth? I would answer Yes to both, and Costa helps us understand this while keeping her character lovable, tragically flawed and just plausible enough throughout. Her performance is remarkable, and thanks to that and more, this is one of the most exhausting, intense, harrowing films I’ve ever seen. The only true catharsis I felt came at the end, when the film finally cut to black.
Victoria also seems to be the apotheosis, I daresay, of a greater and more prolific artistic movement: cinéma vérité. The story is told in real time from about 4am to about 7am—easier for filming because that’s when most of the public is stirring if not sleeping—yet, sprawling as it does across a fair swath of Berlin, the fictional story is permeable to several wild, unavoidable nonfiction detours. These could’ve easily wrecked the narrative, yet the narrative turns them to its benefit. The cop car cruising by as the actors misbehave? Real. The bystanders walking into the shot by accident and reacting to what’s going on? Real. The train rumbling over the café as Victoria and Sonne discuss their lives? Real. Victoria dangling off the edge of that roof, X stories above ground, risking at least serious injury? Real. That way, the terror of the story’s second half feels all the more real. And as one may guess, Schipper made this film without a solid script, using just a threadbare treatment, so much of Grøvlen’s camerawork and the acting is improvised. It’s astonishing how Grøvlen is able to capture such subtleties under such formal restraints. Look at how he contrasts the black piano with the white wall in that café scene, at his tact in filming nude male bodies, and at how he uses the cramped spaces of the elevators and cars to the film’s advantage. Grøvlen, a Norwegian, is cited first in the closing credits, before Schipper, and rightly so; he and Costa are the true stars here. It must be added that the ensemble joining Costa is just as brilliant as she is; the quartet is rounded out by Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit and Max Mauff, all worth naming. The tension they must’ve felt trying to pull this single take off without any screw-ups is very palpable.
A lot of reviews give away more about the story. I won’t, and I encourage readers of this to see the film before reading anything else about it. The flip side of that coin is that some dissenting critics have accused the film of predictability. To that, I respond that there is a difference between predictability and inevitability. The former is monotonous, and the latter—when executed well—is momentous. Victoria is an exercise in inevitability of the highest order, drawn to 140 minutes (making it the longest one-shot yet), its scenes dragged out to gain an air of realism and patience and to bring the tension just below the threshold of bearability. The climax and the catharsis are well-earned. As for those people who complain that the story would mean nothing without its main conceit, let me remind you of Marshall McLuhan’s immortal dictum: “The medium is the message.” The way a story is told affects the story. A story in this vein told with multiple takes would likely not have played out in real time, and would have taken more forethought and more creative liberties that were unavailable to Schipper and crew, and would not have been nearly as enthralling without all the formal constraints and their cumulative payoff. In one essay, I wrote: “Montage by itself—the very concepts of shot, cut and editing—is fallacious. Your life consists of one take, one irreversible decades-long tracking shot made up of…the gaze of your eyes, interrupted by blinks and dreams, but always constant, singular, isolated and harrowing.” Victoria, exquisitely painful and exhilarating, is destined to be the cinema’s best manifestation of that idea for a long, long time.