There was a movie a couple of years ago that I was really fond of called Blancanieves, from the Spanish director Pablo Berger. The movie was a retelling of the Snow White but was set in 1920s Spain and it found interesting ways around the original story’s supernatural elements. It was also notable because it tried to capture that 20s atmosphere by taking on the form of a black and white silent movie. That would been a bold choice that would have really stood out had it not been for another movie called The Artist which was being made around the same time unbeknownst to Berger. You can probably guess what happened, The Artist became an Oscar winning sensation while Blancanieves was completely overshadowed and was seen by only a select few now that someone else had claimed its high concept. That was unfortunate because I thought Blancanieves was actually a lot better than The Artist and had it not lost the race to theaters it may have had a much different fate. I bring this up because the new German film Victoria, which was told entirely in one shot, may well suffer a similar fate simply because it has the great misfortune of coming out the year after another film that seemingly told an entire story in a single shot: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman.
The film begins with its title character, Victoria (Laia Costa), in a nightclub in the middle of Berlin where she meets a cadre of locals who offer to give her a tour of the “real” Berlin. This band of young outgoing Germans include Sonne (Frederick Lau) who quickly makes a connection with Victoria, an ex-con named Boxer (Franz Rogowski), and a couple of party animals named Blinker (Burak Yigit) and Fuss (Max Mauff). The five quickly make a bond as they engage in some lighthearted and alcohol fueled mischief like swiping beers from a convenience store and sneaking onto the roof of a commercial building to hang out. It’s looking like this brief night of merriment is about to come to an end when the guys inform Victoria that they’re in a bit of a jam. They’ve all reluctantly pledged to rob a bank for a local gangster in order to pay off a debt that Boxer had incurred from receiving protection while in prison and now that one of them has been left sick because of their night of debauchery they are short a man. They ask her if she’ll be their wheelman and she reluctantly accepts, perhaps not quite grasping how quickly this night is going to go badly for all involved.
As I said earlier, Victoria will probably live in the shadow of Birdman for quite a long time, which perhaps isn’t really fair because outside of the movies’ shared gimmick they don’t really have all that much in common. Obviously the movies inhabit entirely different genres and have dramatically different tones, but there are key differences to how they employ their single-shot presentations as well. Birdman achieved its single shot through a wide variety of computer tricks and invisible edits whereas, by all accounts, Victoria is the real deal: a film that was truly made in one long take. What’s more, the movie is a good twenty minutes longer than Birdman, has its characters traveling all over a handful of city blocks instead of being confined to a single theater, it’s in real-time, it’s in widescreen, and it features a number of action moments that differentiates it from other “one take” stunts like Rope and Russian Ark. Promotional materials for the film go out of their way to brag about how hard the filmmakers made this on themselves which seems a little misguided to me. Filmmaking is not about how hard you work when filming something, it’s about the final product, and I wouldn’t have thought any less of the film if it had achieved the same effect by “cheating” and using a hundred invisible cuts.
None of that is to suggest that making the film appear to be a single shot was a bad idea or that I think the filmmakers are just trying to show off. This technique actually makes a lot of sense for this story because the film is all about just how quickly your life can turn on a dime. The film takes a good hour or so before the bank robbery is introduced in order to establish this character and show her building this bond with the guys she met and establishing her carefree young party-girl lifestyle. That her life would go from this pleasant place to a place where she’s in the midst of abject chaos in two short hours, hours we see play out in their entirety, does give you something to ponder. I’m not, however, all that sure what to think about the film’s main character. It’s one thing for a character to be somewhat devil-may-care and another thing to just casually go along on a bank robbery out of loyalty to a bunch of guys you’ve literally only known for a little over an hour. If the filmmakers really wanted me to make that big of a leap they probably should have done a little more to establish Victoria as not only a bit of a party girl but also a, for lack of a better term, badass bitch.
Ultimately this isn’t a movie that has a whole lot to say: it’s mostly an action thriller layered on top of a technical exercise, but on that level is quite effective. Even if this wasn’t being done in a single shot its kinetic and mostly handheld but not overly shaky photography would be pretty effective at keeping the movie exciting and the film’s actors, who apparently improvised most of the film’s dialogue, do a really good job of making these characters easy enough to relate to and empathize with. The film definitely had my attention for most of its 138 minute running time and was definitely entertained to my satisfaction. At the same time, if you’re going to go through this much trouble to make something you’d think it would be in service of something that has a little more to say. That’s the main reason that this probably isn’t going to have quite the same pull that Birdman did and in the marketplace it could fall into the difficult position of not really being artsy enough for the arthouse crowd but too “weird” for the multiplex, but I definitely liked it and so will most audiences who want to watch filmmakers pull off this stunt.
*** out of Four