"Victoria" is no Illusion, but the Real Thing

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Belinda van de Graaf

The most magical German film of the 65th Berlinale was made by Sebastian Schipper, who shot “Victoria” in the streets of Berlin, at night, in one take, in real time. Some called the single take drama about a Spanish girl in Berlin – hooking up with four Berliner boys after a night of clubbing – a trick, a stunt, a gimmick. Others defended it as a virtuoso piece of film making and a shot of pure adrenaline. The main jury, headed by American director Darren Aronofsky, belonged to the latter camp. The Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution went to Schipper’s director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (ex aequo with the cinematographers of the Russian entry “Under Electric Clouds”). And rightly so.

The Danish cameraman follows Victoria and her new friends through the night, as they climb out of the nightclub cellar, with its magical, stroboscopic lights, up to the roof of an apartment building, where they drink beer and smoke pot under the stars. It’s a breathtaking piece of cinema in which Grovlen catches the infectious energy of five youngsters drifting through the night, with the careful flirtations of Victoria and Sonne, one of the four friends who grew up together in Berlin, at the heart of the unfolding drama.

Remember the way the Dardenne Brothers caught up with a young and impulsive trailer-park resident and waffle-baker in “Rosetta” (1999), or how Tom Tykwer ran after a redheaded girl in “Run Lola Run” (Lola Rennt, 1998), the inventive German film in which Sebastian Schipper played a small part. Maybe it’s because Schipper is an actor himself, alternating directing and acting jobs, but the performances in his fourth film as director are electrifying. Frank Giering, the main actor of Schipper’s debut film “Gigantics” (Absolute Giganten, 1999) grew up to be a German star. 25-year-old Frederick Lau (as Sonne) has the same on-screen energy and authenticity, trying to stick with his friends, who are tricked into a nocturnal bank-robbery, and falling in love at the same time.

In a central, quieter scene Victoria and Sonne are together in the café where Victoria is working (€4 an hour) and which she has to open at seven o’clock in the morning. Victoria, tomboyishly played by Laia Costa, tells about quitting her piano studies at a conservatory in her home country. She talks about the competition with her fellow students to be the best, and how lost she felt. She looks at the unconditional friendship between Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuss; and in this little scene which feels like it breaks the film into two halves – before and after the bank robbery – “Victoria” becomes a film about connection and solidarity. Out of a desire for belonging Victoria agrees to help out, and participate in the raid. There’s another exciting moment in when Grovlen’s camera stays on Victoria – the getaway driver, behind the wheel of a stolen car – while the robbery unfolds off camera.

It’s amazing and quite revolutionary how Grovlen keeps track of the youngsters on the streets of Berlin. It’s different from Sokurov’s one-take movie “Russian Ark” (Russkij Kovcheg, 2002), which was situated in one location, inside the Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg. It’s also different from Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) which had the effect of one continuous long take, but which was, in reality, broken up into ten-minute takes, as a film reel lasted only ten minutes. The same goes for Iñárritu’s “Birdman” (2014) which only looks like it was made in one take. Director of photography Emmanuel Luzbeki revealed that the longest take in “Birdman” lasted fifteen minutes, and that most takes were in the ten-minute range. “Victoria” is no illusion, but the real thing. The continuous flow gives a special dynamic and immediacy to the tragic events that unfold. It has an effect on the actors as well, who seem to have the concentration of stage performers.

Sebastian Schipper shot the movie three times. After each long take he took a week off, to study the material and to see what could be better. The movie, which had its world premiere in competition in Berlin, is the third take, lasting more than two hours. Although there was no editor involved in the making of the film, and although the dialogue was for the biggest part improvised (Schipper only had a script of twelve pages), this doesn’t mean that the film has no precise structure. Indeed, “Victoria” is a highly structured film, combining the genres of the love story and the heist movie to great effect.

Yes, maybe you’ve got to take some things for granted – for example how the characters are, at a certain moment, able to escape the police. “Victoria” is not a perfect film, but the shortcomings are less interesting than its accomplishments. Schipper breezes some fresh air into Germany’s film landscape of big, expensive (co)productions, which are made with all the perfection in the world, but are so often missing a soul. Werner Herzog’s competition entry “Queen of the Desert”, the biography of English adventurer Gertrude Bell, is the latest example of a lifeless, overproduced film with a big star (Nicole Kidman) in the main role. “Victoria” on the other hand is a great adventure, like Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run” and Fatih Akin’s “Head-On” (Gegen die Wand, 2004) before it.

Edited by Neil Young