While Victoria is a heist movie of substantial technical merit, it’s also just a fine film about Berlin youth culture, and about the singular, seductive joys of being young. It’s steeped in the sounds and tastes of young hedonism: club parties where anything can happen, breaking onto a rooftop to smoke a joint, forming a meaningful emotional connection with somebody new for the very first time. That last one is essential to Victoria and to Victoria (Laia Costa), in that it explains a great man of her increasingly reckless, devil-may-care choices as the film unfolds.
Any review of the film would be remiss if it didn’t acknowledge Victoria’s truest calling card early on: the entire two-hour, 18-minute film unfolds in one unbroken take. And there’s none of the “walking into total darkness” trickery of Birdman to be found here. Director Sebastian Schipper and his ace cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen simply follow Victoria, from the subterranean nightclub in which the film begins and into a truly harrowing night. But like many wild nights, it starts with her agreeing to keep the part going with Sonne (Frederick Lau), a handsome local, and his friends Boxer (Franz Rogkowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Fuss (Max Mauff). She asks if those are their real names. They never say, nor does the film.
Victoria’s the adventurous type, and lost in the world; she left Madrid for unclear reasons, has been in Berlin for a few months, and is clearly restless. There’s more to Victoria than her job in a nondescript café demands, and Sonne and his crew offer something new, and exciting. Even when they clearly start trying to break into a car in a drunken fury, she laughs along. They’re clearly all bark and no bite, especially Sonne, who takes a more active interest in Victoria. They wander a bit behind the rest of the hooligans, and their scenes have the easy, natural rapport of first love that recalls other single-night stories like Before Sunrise. They drink, they banter, they get high, they avoid cops. It’s a normal wild night out.
At least, it is until Fuss gets a little too drunk on his birthday, and Sonne starts rambling about a job they now can’t finish without Victoria’s help, one that has to get done immediately. Victoria slowly ramps up the excruciating tension through ever available device, from the inherent threat of a young woman setting out into the night with four strange men to Nils Frahm’s pulsating, uneasy score to the crew’s tendency to shift in and out of English as needed. When they directly address Victoria, it’s always accented English, and when they need to have a conversation she doesn’t need to hear, the film transitions to subtitled German. In a number of scenes, particularly a disturbing encounter in an underground parking garage made all the more so by her visible disorientation as all hell breaks loose around her, Victoria’s disconnection from the scene speaks volumes. It’s a uniquely cinematic trick, and one that plays with the increasing blurring of European borders in the modern era in a context that only mounts the already encroaching sense of dread over their continued night out.
The single-take photography is far more a benefit to Victoria than a detriment. If the film falters at any point, it’s only when the final third (and particularly the follow-up to the aforementioned job) starts to depend on a series of escalating bad decisions made by key characters in order to keep the film’s unease at its peak. It’s in these moments that Victoria feels like a more typical kind of crime story, instead of the genre-fluid and unique one it emerges as so much of the time. But this is pure cinema, a story of young rebellion whose single-take photography only helps to capture the time-lapsed, sun’s-never-coming-up glee of wandering adrift in the world with fun and pleasure being the only operative goals. At least, those are Victoria’s. The rest of the guys, it’s hard to say.