Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria opens with thumping techno music and flashes of colour across a dark screen. The colours come into focus as beams of light streaming across a dance floor, and a young woman emerges from the darkness. Immediately, we’re pulled into her night. She sways toward the bar, giddy and sweaty. You sense that she’s been partying for a while, and is now asking herself the age-old decision ‘do I stay ’til last drinks or call it a night?’ Of course, ‘calling it a night’ is rarely what comes to mind during Berlin’s after hours.
Laia Costa as Victoria in Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, (2015).
After an awkward flirtation with an aloof bartender, Victoria (Laia Costa) notices some lads who are being denied entry. They seem lowkey dangerous, in the way a large sleeping dog might cause you to walk quietly around it. But she has the open-mindedness and clunky confidence that comes with being a twenty-something backpacker, drunk in a cool club. She decides to leave, and finds the lads hovering around the stairway entrance. The most forthright one—Sonne (Frederick Lau)—introduces himself and “his” car with a cheeky grin. He has just enough charm to muffle any initial warning bells. His mates also introduce themselves—the aggressive ‘Boxer’ (Franz Rogowski), the anxious ‘Fuss’ (Max Mauff) and the emotional ‘Blinker’ (Burak Yiğit)—almost like they’re the dwarves and she’s Snow White, though with a fair dash of Trainspotting. Of course, the car is someone else’s; they’re caught out straight away.
After only a moment of hesitation, Victoria decides to tag along on a mission to find more beer and a rooftop to drink it on. She intermittently mentions that her shift at a café starts in a few hours, and that she’s on a working holiday in Germany (she’s originally from Spain). The lads veer between viewing her as a potential love interest, protegee, and liability, as they leave the pounding bass of the club and show her a slice of their world. There’s a subtle but abrupt change in tone, like street lamps flicking off with the wash of new daylight.
Laia Costa as Victoria and Frederick Lau as Sonne in Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, (2015).
There’s a point in the middle of Victoria, when you might think Schipper has made a meandering slice-of-life drama about lost youths biding time; woman meets a ruffian, they talk about different life directions, they fall in love for a night, etcetera. But the film takes a rubber-burning turn down a very different street. It seems the suggestable Victoria has been drawn into a seedy mess. The lads must come up with €50,000 or there will be brutal consequences. And they need Victoria to make it happen. Sonne’s boyish charm begins to fade as Victoria realises the gravity of the situation.
When a director employs long continuous shots (Victoria is shot in just one continuous shot), film reviewers often seem to focus on the technical achievement rather than whether the novel approach serves the story effectively. Sometimes, a continuous shot can shift a film’s momentum or push the narrative to a crescendo (Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has a heart-stopping example), but sometimes these shots can distract from the film’s verisimilitude and break your investment in the characters (Birdman at points felt like a technical exercise). But Victoria strikes a balance between immersive story and cinematic experiment; Schipper allows the narrative to breathe, while also prompting the question ‘How did the camera do that?’. Unlike the oft-studied continuous shot of Children of Men—or classic film noir Touch of Evil—Victoria is not full of sweeping set pieces: instead we follow these characters up-close as they wander and talk. There are echoes of Linklater’s Before series in the way Schipper follows the conversations as the characters navigate largely deserted streets. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and the camera crew have poetically and technically captured Berlin in its true light: as a quintessentially nighttime city. And that one shot continues, as the Berlin night does. The filmmakers guide our experience of a city waking up, filming different locations and changing lighting conditions while focusing on the nuanced facial expressions of a cast improvising dialogue.
“You emerge from Victoria feeling bleary-eyed and drained, like you’ve experienced one hell of a night out in the urban wilderness. ”
The urgency of a single continuous shot rumbling low through concrete Berlin, coupled with the easy chemistry of all the actors—particularly Victoria and Sonne as young lovers, looking for thrills—feels both instinctive and fresh. And all of this is amplified with a score—composed by celebrated Berlin-based musician Nils Frahm (Lindsay Issue No. 3)— that feels like a contemporary, lived sonic expression that reflects a city with a dual history of invention and artistic freedom, but also dread and violence. Victoria has the pulsating heart of fellow German director Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, never favouring style over emotional cohesion. You emerge from Victoria feeling bleary-eyed and drained, like you’ve experienced one hell of a night out in the urban wilderness.
Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (2015), 138 minutes, Germany