Victoria: An entire film in just one take

01 Apr 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

7 mins

A tight timeframe and a loose script

German thriller Victoria captures a few hours in the life of a young woman, new to Berlin, who is exploring the city's party scene. From the heady beats of a nightclub, to after-dark street revels, the friendly locals are keen to show her around - until eventually Victoria finds herself led dangerously astray. Incredibly, the whole film is shot entirely in just one take, with the actors having rehearsed sections of the script only a few times before attempting to film the full picture, which was perfected on only the third try.

Working from a minimal script (the original treatment was just twelve pages long!) the film is tightly paced, yet gives the actors relative freedom to flesh out the film and their characters themselves, with much of the dialogue that takes place within the two-hour-plus run time improvised by the cast. Not only impressive considering that one minute of screen time usually requires one page of a script, but this free-flowing form helps lend an air of credibility to proceedings, as we watch relationships develop in real time between characters that are under our constant gaze.

Creating another dimension is the language barrier. Victoria - our protagonist - is Spanish, and speaks little of the local German, and so the only common language between her and her newfound friends is English - a second language to them all. While at times this creates a comic - even flirtatious - dynamic, it also allows for misinterpretation and the reframing of situations, with details revealed to the audience that Victoria is not privy to, as her new friends get to decide how much of their conversations they translate for her.

Stranger in a strange land

As well as being technically audacious, the effect of the one-take filming creates a sense of unravelling events and increasing tension right through to the climax, with the harsh light of the dawning day exposing the break our protagonist has created with her former naivety. Victoria finds herself in a far more serious situation than she could ever have anticipated, borne out of her simple desire to be friendly towards a new group of people.

Another fish-out-of-water female character that finds herself drawn into a world of crime is Patricia Franchini in Jean Luc Godard's iconic and groundbreaking New Wave thriller Breathless. Similar to Victoria, Breathless was shot on location in Paris rather than on staged studio sets. But instead of the fluid one-take filmmaking of Victoria, Breathless employs jump-cuts which make a feature of exposing the camera positioning behind each shot. The naturalistic camerawork in Victoria makes the viewer forget that there has been no break, no scene change - each moment flows on from the last seamlessly. 

Birdman famously employs a similar long take technique to add psychological tension, although in this case it's an illusion, and there are breaks built into moments of shadow that take the pressure off the cast and crew when filming. The long take with concealed cuts is also put to effective use in Hitchcock's unnerving crime drama Rope, and split-screen caper Time Code.

Rapidly mounting consequences

Also comparable with Victoria's Berlin setting and pacy narrative flow is 1998's Run Lola Run (in which Victoria's director Sebastian Schipper had a small acting role). Both films focus on conflicted female protagonists who lead us through the films, and the audience must be on board with the journey, wherever it may take us. However, while Run Lola Run frantically explores multiple parallel storylines against the pressure of a ticking clock, Victoria commits to one plot, in which the protagonist must find a solution before the day breaks.

Taking place over a similarly taut timeline is French social realist drama La Haine, which gives its protagonists a intriguing dilemma: finding themselves in possession of a lost police gun after a riot, they set themselves an ultimatum - if their friend, who has been a victim of police brutality, dies of his injuries, then they will use the gun against an officer.

Similarly frenetic, but with much of the action contained to within one vehicle, is Collateral, a thriller which sees a hitman take a cab driver hostage over a long and tense night in which he must struggle to stay alive. Pared down yet further, Locke limits itself solely to a one car interior location, while the protagonist, suffering from a bad conscience, goes on a journey and must negotiate several conflicting phone calls which may or may not derail him from the mission he's set himself. Victoria ambitiously takes in 22 locations, despite the logistical difficulties imposed by capturing the action in a single take.

Music takes us on the journey

The scoring process for the film mimics that of the filmmaking, in that musicians were challenged to improvise and respond to the film while viewing it for the first time. The film was left playing on a loop in the studio for the musicians to then hone their initial responses. Berlin composer Nils Frahm was given a brief from director Sebastian Schipper to 'compose silence'. His interpretation of this was to create a soundtrack that deftly blends into the story, creating a non-diegetic score which illustrates the mood as time shifts and the events of the film unfold. Frahm also implemented diegetic sound, which exists within the world of the film and the characters' awareness, such as the pounding beats of the nightclub in the opening scene, and a remarkably tender piano performance that marks a crucial moment of character development for Victoria.

A truly innovative piece of cinema, Victoria is an inspiring accomplishment, and just goes to show the extent to which almost anything is possible when it comes to modern filmmaking.

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Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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