Sebastian Schipper's exhilarating heist thriller is stunt filmmaking of a very high order.
Fly away, “Birdman” — there’s a new one-shot wonder in town, and unlike that digitally augmented opus, Sebastian Schipper’s heart-in-mouth heist thriller “Victoria” isn’t performing any high-tech sleight of hand. Genuinely shot across 22 locations in a single bobbing, weaving, 134-minute take, this exhilarating tale of a winsome Spanish nightclubber who finds herself spontaneously caught up in a bank robbery during one wild night on the Berlin tiles is undeniably a stunt, but one suffused with a surprising degree of grace and emotional authenticity. If Luc Besson had somehow been born the third Dardenne brother, the trio might have produced something like this heady, palpitating Berlin competition entry; only “Victoria’s” considerable (but credibility-facilitating) length stands between her and a genre-crossover coup.
With its very opening image, Schipper’s film makes an unsubtle but effective grab for viewers’ attention, as the dizzying white scintillation of a dance-floor strobe light envelops the frame. Photosensitive epileptics should consider themselves warned, but it’s “Victoria” itself that, after a fashion, enters a state of seizure from this point, its impulses and reflexes in hot, compelling, irrational disarray. Rather like its in-over-her-head heroine, the narrative swerves from a state of composed realism to one of high-stakes, head-spinning absurdity with nary a moment to breathe or ponder its actions.
Audiences may come down from the high a little sooner than the film does, with the characters’ increasingly ill-considered actions testing our faith and engagements to the breaking point, but the sheer centripetal force of the film’s vigorous technique never loses its hold. It won’t surprise viewers unfamiliar with actor-turned-helmer Schipper’s career that he has previously collaborated with Tom Tykwer: For much of its seamless running time, “Victoria” essentially plays as “Run Lola Run” minus the stylized videogame conceit.
The figure that eventually emerges from the dry-ice fog is Victoria (Laia Costa), an ingenuous twentysomething waitress from Madrid on a three-month working trip to Berlin. We eventually learn that she’s a stalled piano prodigy, but appears to have given herself over to the more metronomic rhythms of house music on a regular basis: Clubbing alone at 4 a.m. on a weeknight appears to be routine for her, even with the breakfast shift ahead at a cafe in the Mitte district. (Schipper and production designer Uli Friedrichs have cleverly organized the narrative’s geography around a condensed slab of the city center, fabricating locations where necessary to ensure nothing’s more than a hop, skip or minor taxi fare away.)
On her way out to catch a few hours’ shuteye, Victoria is approached at the coat check by the puppy-eyed, genially flirtatious Sonne (Frederick Lau), and humors his goofy pick-up shtick as far as the street outside, where his thuggish coterie of friends — including slap-headed ex-jailbird Boxer (Franz Rogowski) — are waiting. Perhaps more susceptible to their attention than she would be in a city where she had more friends, she agrees to go back to their place (or so they claim) for a few extra drinks, before sneaking off with Sonne to her closed workplace for a little one-on-one.
This extended meet-cute is kept from its seemingly inevitable conclusion — amid disarming banter about music and cold cocoa, the two are sweetly shy to kiss — when Sonne is called back by Boxer on an emergency mission, at which point the proceedings dive head-first into movie-movie territory. Turns out Boxer’s old prison protector Andi (a barking, leering Andre M. Hennicke) is demanding payback in the form of a €50,000 bank heist — a figure small enough to keep the film from the realm of fantasy, but still a task for which these substance-addled kids are hardly prepared. With Victoria roped in as the gang’s driver, it’s all go from there: The fallout of the crime is as breathless as the execution.
Working from a bare-bones script that calls for entirely improvised dialogue, Schipper and his team have devised a high-concept romp that nonetheless says something rather delicate and touching about feckless generational ennui and transnational loneliness: As a study of the youthful desire for connection in the up-all-night urban playground of Berlin, “Victoria” works as a jumped-up companion piece to Jan-Ole Gerster’s more modestly scaled 2012 hit “Oh Boy.” Led by the thoroughly winning Costa and Lau, the ensemble rises to task with their plausible, frequently witty off-the-cuff chatter. (Hennicke, meanwhile, comes up with a ludicrous villainous imperative — “Download, bitch!” — that Hollywood scriptwriters will surely wish to borrow.)
Still, it’s virtuoso d.p. Sturla Brandth Grovlen (unusually but perhaps appropriately billed ahead of the helmer in the closing credits) who should take the most extended bow for this madcap gambit coming off as well as it does. Shooting on grainy, rough-and-ready digital that proves happily equal to the film’s athleticism, Grovlen tracks events and expressions with equal care and fluidity, not permitting the central gimmick to excuse any compositional carelessness. In the absence of an editor, moreover, his camera is chiefly responsible for conducting the pace and flow of the action, and shifts register accordingly with that of the film — attentively circling characters in intimate interior scenes before giving way to agitated hand-held panic when the chips are truly down.
Subsuming all dialogue at certain points, Nils Frahm’s score is an equally flexible asset, veering from juddering electronic chaos to dreamy intrusions of piano and cello — a sonic approximation of the alternating noise in the title character’s wrecked head.