I was going to tell you about the deliberately assaultive opening shot of Sebastian Schipper’s film “Victoria,” in which we see a young Spanish woman dancing by herself in a Berlin nightclub – although we don’t know who she is or where she is at first. The dance floor is illuminated with a brilliant white pulsing strobe light – those with neurological disorders are hereby cautioned – and the soundtrack mimics or transposes the pounding rhythms of the club music without exactly reproducing it. But the terminology here is either wrong or misleading: If that’s the opening shot of “Victoria,” it’s also the concluding shot and all the shots in between. There’s only one shot in the entire film – “film” being a term of art in this case, even more than usual -- and it lasts almost two and a half hours.
We have a strange and possibly meaningless epistemological dilemma in contemporary media about what makes certain things “cinema” and other things “television,” and whether there’s really any difference. In many cases the differences are nonexistent or budgetary or purely semantic, and one day soon they may evaporate entirely for everything except the biggest Hollywood spectacles and the artiest outer fringe. But “Victoria” strikes me as a work of cinema, specific to 2015, one that would not and could not have been made for TV. (And that’s true even though I actually watched it at home, on a disc supplied by the distributor.)
This is the year that also brought us a feature film shot entirely on the iPhone -- Sean Baker’s intensely colorful Hollywood street drama “Tangerine” – in which you rapidly forget its unusual technical heritage and keep watching for other reasons. In fact, I would rank “Tangerine” among the year’s most memorable films, and “Victoria,” a Berlin night-side odyssey shot in one uninterrupted 138-minute take, is even better. Certainly people have flocked to see it at film festivals because of the technical bravado involved in pulling this off, but “Victoria” is no stunt. It’s an exciting European indie loaded with verve, atmosphere, danger and emotional range; if you didn’t know it was a single-take feature going in, you almost certainly wouldn’t notice.
Shooting an entire movie in one go, or at least making it look as if you had (as in last year's Oscar-winning "Birdman"), definitely isn’t a new idea, although it has only been possible since the introduction of digital video in the late ‘90s. As far as I know, Mike Figgis’ “Timecode,” made in 2000, was the first true example, and as its title suggests it was essentially a novelty item. Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” two years later, was more like a historical tableau vivant than a dramatic feature, delivered as a single 96-minute tracking shot through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In the film era, numerous directors experimented with extremely long takes or simulated one-take movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” consists of eight 10-minute takes (the limit of a standard film magazine); by contrast, Hungarian art-god Béla Tarr’s celebrated “Werckmeister Harmonies” – 39 fixed-camera shots over 145 minutes – is pretty much a hip-hop video.
But the challenge met by “Victoria,” and in a different way by “Tangerine,” is of a different order: First make the technical breakthrough obvious, and then make it disappear. Throughout what we might call the first chapter of Schipper’s film, as the Spanish girl, whose name is indeed Victoria (Laia Costa), dances, drinks, leaves the club and hooks up with a quartet of rowdy Berlin guys who may be lovable louts and may be big trouble, I was almost hyperconscious of the camera movements, the way people come in or out of the frame, and the fact that there are no sudden shifts of perspective. But as I got drawn into Victoria’s reckless or impulsive decisions and their mounting consequences, I stopped thinking about that stuff. By the time she finds alone in a predawn café with Sonne (Frederick Lau), the most amiable member of the dubious foursome and the one who’s clearly smitten with her, and plays him one of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes on the piano, I had forgotten it entirely.
That moment in the café informs everything that happens later, especially Victoria’s decision to serve as the emergency driver for a mysterious errand that Sonne’s friend Boxer (Franz Rogowski), a skinhead ex-con, must run on behalf of someone he knew in prison. You have a pretty good idea how decisions of that sort turn out in movies, I suspect. It is amazing, without question, that Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen get Sonne and Victoria from an all-night party movie to an irresistible love story to a startling crime thriller and then to a vicious but inescapable tragedy, by having the actors play the largely improvised script all the way through and without the benefit of any editing whatever. (Apparently it took three tries, and Schipper promised his financiers he would insert jump cuts if he had to.)
But it is far more amazing, as with the lurid, oversaturated iPhone colors of “Tangerine,” that the technique serves the story rather than the other way around. The risk and urgency involved in making “Victoria” morph into narrative risk and then human risk, as we watch our wistful gamine – who speaks almost no German and knows almost no one in Berlin – do a blithe tightrope walk between a night of wild bohemian adventure and a situation that could easily end in rape or prison or violent death. Can Victoria find the freedom she seeks? I’ll leave that for you to find out, but this terrifying, seductive and adrenaline-fueled movie has found a new form of freedom for cinema.
"Victoria" is now playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Regal Union Square in New York, and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. It opens Oct. 16 in Boston, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Miami, Minneapolis, New Haven, Conn., Palm Springs, Calif., Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle; and Oct. 23 in Atlanta, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., St. Louis, Santa Cruz, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Des Moines, Iowa, with other cities and home video to follow.