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One city. One night. One take.

The audacious premise of Victoria, a 134-minute thriller shot entirely in one uninterrupted take, was born out of boredom. The Berlin filmmaker Sebastian Schipper had grown so sick of rewriting an old script that he began to fantasize about ‘something more exciting: robbing a bank.’

Poster art for VictoriaHe became fixated on the idea that a real heist seemed incomparably more interesting than a heist movie. So Mr. Schipper began to plot a film that would feel less like a fun genre movie and more like a nerve-racking documentary. He imagined a real-time movie, transpiring in the hour before and after the crime. It would follow a young Spanish woman, Victoria, who meets a group of charming robbers at a Berlin nightclub. He would film the entire story – meet-cute, bike ride, robbery, shootout, car chase and getaway – in one unedited shot.

Mr. Schipper is not the first to chase this particular grail. Cinema, which began with short one-shot movies, has a history of one-shot stunts. Most notably, in Time Code (2000), Mike Figgis arranged four feature-length takes in quadrants on a divided screen. In the Colombian thriller PVC-1 (2007), Spiros Stathoulopoulos used the technique to intensify the drama of a woman with a bomb strapped around her neck.

Five years earlier, in Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov floated a Steadicam through 33 lush rooms and thousands of extras in the Hermitage Museum. Building on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), 2014’s Oscar winner Birdman created the illusion of a one-take film with the use of sly, barely noticeable cuts. The one-shot is such a mythic, macho fantasy that Mr. Schipper likened directors to pirates boasting in a pub.

‘In the film world it’s a mystical island,’ he said, grinning. ‘Some people say they’ve been there many times. Other people say, “No you haven’t.” In a way, we aren’t the first. And in a way we are.’

Mr. Schipper financed and cast his movie with a 12-page story and the conviction that the uninterrupted shot would give the film an immersive, immediate realism. He hired the rising German star Frederick Lau and the extraordinary discovery Laia Costa for the title role. ‘I wasn’t looking for the most experienced,’ Mr. Schipper said. ‘I was looking for people that I could trust on this crazy trip.’

For the production, shot in Berlin, Mr. Schipper’s team picked 22 nearby locations that his crew could reach quickly, including a rooftop, a garage, a café and a hotel. They mapped and timed transitions. The cast rehearsed 10-minute sections repeatedly. Six assistant directors, three sound teams and the cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen practised as well. Simultaneously, the story evolved.

‘It was never a fixed script,’ Ms. Costa said. ‘We improvised every time. At first, Victoria was a leader, then very shy – I was in touch with 20 different Victorias.’

Soon, the practical concerns were mostly resolved. ‘The logistics of everything were possible,’ Mr. Schipper said. ‘Every shoot is crazy. Acting was the challenge.’

To direct the actors, Mr. Schipper yelled commands (edited out later), training them to never look at him, no matter how loud he shouted. ‘Be more charming, be less drunk, be more drunk!’

He could afford just three attempts to shoot the film, each beginning at 4:30 a.m. in darkness and ending shortly after dawn. On the first effort, none of the million things that could go wrong derailed the shoot. ‘But the film was a failure,’ Mr. Schipper said. ‘It was too careful. I said, “Go crazy! Take more risks!”’ The second take was riskier – and worse.

To assuage investors’ concerns, Mr. Schipper had promised that he would edit together a more conventional cut if necessary. On the third take, there were close calls. ‘Thankfully there was some kind of hippie film god on the watch, so it came together,’ Mr. Schipper said. ‘The other two takes are good for the Guinness Book of World Records or whatever. Only the last one is a film.’
At the Berlin Film Festival, Guy Lodge wrote in Variety that the film was ‘undeniably a stunt, but one suffused with a surprising degree of grace and emotional authenticity.’

In the film’s final moments, Ms. Costa walks away from the camera. ‘Someone was shouting: “It’s finished! You can stop!”’ Ms. Costa said she kept walking. ‘It was like when you’re in a dream and someone’s waking you up, and you just keep saying, “Five more minutes – five more minutes, please.” I still don’t want it to be over.

– Logan Hill, The New York Times

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