‘Victoria’ is a Mesmerizing One-Shot Thriller

Long-time readers know I approach contemporary German movies with a bit of trepidation. So I was amazed by Victoria, an gem of a German film from 2015.

The plot could hardly be simpler: Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish music student who’s living in Berlin and working as a waitress. She goes clubbing one night, and meets a group of four young German guys who charm her with their broken high-school English, frisky late-night hi-jinks, and friendly, non-threatening manner. Sparks fly, in particular, between one of them, nicknamed ‘Sonne’ (Sun, played by Frederick Lau). Victoria decides to hang around with them after they all leave the nightclub together at around 4:30 AM. As she gets to know them, it turns out they’re a bit sleazier than she originally thought — one hints at a criminal record, another gets blackout drunk — but that’s all part of the no-strings-attached, exchange-student experience. Then one of four gets a fateful call from an old prison buddy, and things turn rather dark. That’s all I’ll say; avoid spoilers at all costs.

Victoria is one of the very few movies made in one continuous take. And what a take it is! We follow them through the club, out on the streets of Kreuzberg and Mitte, up to building roofs, down to parking garages, into banks, into apartments, and through courtyards. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and lots is in English (which disqualified the film for the Oscar foreign-language category). Of course, the one-take movie is a bit of a gimmick, but done well, it can ratchet up the tension and drama in an organic way. Which is precisely what happens here. Further, Victoria has none of the ‘choreographed’ look of some one-take movies. The action is seamless, fluid and convincing; you never doubt for a second that you’re ‘in the moment’ with the characters. And as the movie progresses, the fact that it was all done in one take became ever more jaw-droppingly astounding.

The performances are intense, believable and moving. Costa and Lau received German film prize awards, and deservedly so. Some people have called the plot a bit hare-brained, but I didn’t: The main event is a robbery by a bunch of hopped-up amateurs which goes horribly wrong. Most robberies are done by hopped-up amateurs, and most do go horribly wrong. The chaotic, violent final scenes are the sort of thing that’s becoming all too familiar on German streets.

Victoria’s a bit overlong, but just a bit. Other than that, it’s a minor cinematic masterpiece. It avoids all the weaknesses of German movies (sermonizing, heavy-handed symbolism, lack of drama), and draws on all the strengths (outstanding set design, awesomely talented actors, convincing improvisation drawn from extensive stage experience). I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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