It’s a long night in Berlin for Victoria, the title character of actor-turned-director Sebastian Schipper’s exhilarating drama about a group of partygoers whose evening ends in disaster. Shot in one continuous take of two hours and thirteen minutes, Victoria is a technical marvel, and its methodological brilliance is matched by its exhilarating action.
Played by the talented Laia Costa, Victoria is a naïve but (as we will later find out) particularly brave young Spaniard who has come to Berlin to start afresh, after her budding career as a concert pianist was cut short. The film begins to luscious, thumping techno, as the camera picks out Victoria from a mass of silhouettes amid the blinding lights of a sweaty underground club. About to call it a night, she is convinced otherwise by the charming and persistent Sonne (Frederick Lau), who leads her, along with his three friends, to their favourite hang-out spot on the roof of a nearby block of flats. The group, who must find a common language, speak a broken English that makes for endearing dialogue, most of which was extemporised from a minimal 12-page script. Infused with Richard Linklater’s directorial influence, these initial moments are measured and building. Though they might have been condensed if Schipper had used multiple takes, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s long, unbroken shot rightly echoes the protracted antics of a listless, drunken group of friends.
From here, the film gathers pace as the night quickly descends into chaos. After a brief yet mesmeric scene in which Victoria shows off her impressive skills on the piano (she and Sonne have returned to the café where she works, intending to open up for the day), she is roped into joining her new accomplices on an urgent errand, at the behest of Sonne’s friend Boxer, an amicable yet shadowy character who had previously spent time in prison. The men promise that if she drives them to a nearby location, they will return her safely back to the café, though it soon becomes clear that Victoria is in over her head. In what follows, we are given a window into Berlin’s criminal underbelly in all its slick horror. Although the plot can, at times, feel far-fetched (later in the film, Sonne and Victoria manage to escape a platoon of armed police officers by slipping through some well-placed foliage), none of this really matters, because the relentless camerawork is so thoroughly immersive that we are pulled along with no time to question anything.
By the film’s end we feel physically exhausted, as though we too have been dancing, crawling and running alongside the characters in order to keep up with the action. This blurring between film and reality is Victoria’s most striking feature. As one comment posted to the Guardian’s online review reads, “[after watching Victoria] I just stepped out of the Barbican cinema and the City of London seemed very unreal to me.” If the film, with its absence of cuts or pauses, somehow represents ‘real time’, upon leaving the cinema, our own real time feels decidedly filmic.
In creating Victoria, Schipper claims that he wanted to make something “wild”, a film that would combat modern cinema’s trajectory towards becoming merely a “circus animal which you go and stroke”. Victoria feels anything but tame; it is genuine and real, a thrilling cinematic ride along the streets of a city at dawn. In one stunning sequence, relief and elation give way to crushing fear as the gang emerge from the club to realise the police are on their tail. Throughout all this, the characters’ increasingly intimate relationships really shine; they have only known each other for as long as we have been sitting in the cinema, yet their bonds feel life-long. How, we are forced to consider, could all of this happened in just two hours?
After all is said and done, as Costa’s character retreats into the quiet streets of Berlin, one can’t help but imagine the jubilation felt by the crew when the cameras stop rolling. Quite right, too; this is an impressive film that excites and shocks in equal measure.
Published in Varsity | 22/04/16