It’s early in the morning in Berlin, and a 23-year-old woman from Madrid named Victoria is dancing to her heart’s content all alone in a nightclub. As she’s leaving, the young woman meets some charming, roguish local guys, who invite her to venture out into the city streets looking for fun. Impulsively, she decides to go for it — and over the next two hours of gunfire, coke binges, high-speed pursuits and one major predawn bank heist, Victoria will get way more than she bargained for. And the “fun” never stops, literally: Everything unfolds both in real time and — wait for it — one single, unbroken 138-minute shot.
A combination of a Before Sunrise-syle love story, a pomo-pulp crime picture, and a we-are-young manifesto, Victoria is one exhilarating rush of a movie, an experiment in how far you can push one-take formalism before things fall apart. (The film was shot in three long takes over two weeks; the third try was the one used for the final movie.) Ask the man behind this bold, award-winning experiment, 47-year-old German actor-turned-director Sebastian Schipper, for an analogy of what it was like to conceive of and shoot this thriller, however, and the normally chatty filmmaker is at a loss for words.
“The key reference point in making Victoria was music,” he finally explains, hanging out in his publicist’s Los Angeles offices alongside Victoria herself, the movie’s 30-year-old star Laia Costa. In slightly broken English, he continues: “This is my fourth film, but if I was a musician, this is the first album that sounds like me, for better or worse — not me imitating Thom Yorke or some other singer-songwriter superhero that I would love to be. There’s a lot of punk rock in this project — we dropped out of school and went into a garage and started rocking.”
The idea behind Victoria came to Schipper after struggling with another script for five years. An actor with parts in The English Patient and Run Lola Run, he had transitioned into directing but hadn’t made a film since 2009’s Sometime in August, which failed to gain a U.S. theatrical release. “The train of thought was, ‘I need to do something else in my life,'” he recalls. He began thinking about bank robberies — specifically, stories about heists — and why the idea of making yet another movie about guys with guns, ski masks and loot seemed like a dead end. Suddenly, inspiration hit: “Movies always pretend ‘This is real,’ which is kind of crazy because they’re so artificial — it’s a set, there’s nothing real about this. Then I wondered: But what if you did a film like that in one take? I thought, ‘That’s stupid. Go away, idea.’ It went away, but it came back.”
Victoria‘s tricky segues from drunken-hangout comedy to tentative character piece to chase picture are impressive enough, but what’s genuinely laudable is how the creator, cast and crew skillfully navigate viewers through the city’s different locales: grungy dance clubs, lonely rooftops, underground hideouts, swanky hotels, and even moving vehicles. With only the camera operator knowing how the images were looking — a video assist would have been too cumbersome — it’s not entirely ludicrous for Schipper to invoke Francis Ford Coppola’s classic line about Apocalypse Now (“This isn’t a film about Vietnam. This film is Vietnam”) when he declares, “Victoria is not a movie about a bank robbery — it is a bank robbery. And there’s a lot of truth to that, because the project was crazy and it was very scary.”
As for his star, Costa expresses surprise that so many journalists ask her about how hard it was to be at the center of a one-take film in which she’s the focal point of what’s happening. “It was not a lot of pressure,” says the Barcelona-born actress. “I felt: safe, I knew the story, I knew the rules. … It’s just ‘Be here right now. With all the things going on, be honest with your role and be focused.’ Me, I came from a completely different place. If I were Victoria for real, the first time [the German guys] say, ‘You want a beer?’ I would say, ‘No, sorry.’ No story at all.”
Rehearsing for a month before going in front of the cameras, Costa and her cast mates, which include Frederick Lau and Franz Rogowski, were given only 12 pages of script, encouraged to develop their own dialogue and not worry about saying the same lines or doing the same actions each time. “The moment you install a safety net, you also cut the heights,” Schipper explains. “I knew that we have to go all-in. We’re gonna lose or we’re gonna win — that sounds a little pathetic or dramatic, but it’s still true. I didn’t want the handbrake on for safety reasons. I said, ‘For once, let’s not be afraid. What are we waiting for? This is our project. Let’s do it the way we want to do it.'”
Because of the handheld camera, freewheeling characters and sleepy-eyed time of day when the movie takes place — shooting for the third and final take started at 4:30am on Sunday, April 27, 2014 — Victoria can’t help but feel like an accidental portrait of those magical, fragile, youthful years before adult responsibilities take hold. Schipper didn’t intend that interpretation, but he now sees his film as something of a time capsule for a particular period in a person’s personal development.
“I’m 47,” he says. “I remember how it was 20, 25 years ago. But then again, maybe my memory isn’t correct.” Which is why he’s even happier that he prodded his cast to invent their own dialogue and behavior for their characters. “It’s almost like a field study,” he says of the movie. “Forget about the robbery; in a century, [if you ask], ‘How were young people in Europe?’ you can look at this film. ‘That’s how they did it. That’s how they solved problems. That’s how they celebrated.'”
Asked if they would ever attempt something like this again, Costa — who, for the record, thinks the second take was much better than third and wants her disapproval noted for the record — claims, “I want to do it again. I loved it so much. But he doesn’t want to, so we have a problem.”
“I would never do it again,” Schipper says flatly. “I would never advise anybody [to make a single-take movie]. I would tell them, ‘Don’t do it.’ A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, if I’m right, was recorded in three days.” (Actually, it was cut in four hours.) “The guys just went there, made music — and then there was suddenly A Love Supreme! But you don’t do films like that. We gave it all we got. We were brave, and we were bleeding, sweating, crying. But honestly, I think there was some sort of crazy film god on watch that Sunday morning. We were blessed — and maybe we earned this blessing, I don’t know.”
“[In the final scene], I was walking on the street and they’d say, ‘Stop, it’s done!,'” Costa declares, breaking into a big grin. “‘Stop, don’t walk anymore!’ And I keep walking — I was like, ‘I want to be here five more minutes. Please, don’t stop right now.’ You know when you’re sleeping and you are having a great dream and someone is waking you? You’re like, ‘Mmmmm, five more minutes, motherfucker!’ It was like that.”