By Zhuo-Ning Su.
Calling German writer/director Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria the runaway sensation at this year’s Berlin Film Festival is overstating it a little bit, considering how critical response to the film was not nearly as unanimously amorous as to, say, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi or Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. That said, if sensation is to be defined by that jolt of electricity a film sends through the audience’s collective minds simply because it’s so fresh, bold, and recklessly charged, then Victoria definitely fits the bill. For all its failings and divisive choices, this is a movie that wows.
Set in present-day Berlin, where a young Spanish girl could plausibly be dancing to deafening club beats at half past four in the morning and trying to flirt in broken English with a bartender she just assumes to be Swedish, the movie follows its titular heroine (played by Laia Costa) as she navigates the thrills and dangers of the German capital during one fateful night. Picked up by the drunk Berliner Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his gang of friends as she’s leaving the anonymous underground paradise, Victoria gradually finds herself drawn to the world of the marginalized represented by these young men, a place of quiet disillusionment and stolen bliss, unquestioned camaraderie and pure chance. When the casually flirtatious predawn hours take an ugly turn, she might already be in too deep to call it quits.
As prominently proclaimed in all its press materials, the film is shot in one single take. And unlike the newly-minted Oscar winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), which only has the appearance of an extended, continuous shot but is in fact edited together, Victoria actually unfolds in real time and its director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen has had his hand on the camera for the entire duration of the film. For better or worse, this will remain the defining characteristic that makes the movie so exhilarating and frustrating at once.
Obviously it is hard not to gush about a full-length, 140 minute running feature film done without edits. Inherently unusual and compounded by a dynamic storyline which sees the characters drift or flee from place to place in situations relaxed and dire, the feat of the never-breaking gaze is not just tremendously difficult to pull off here on a logistic level; psychologically, the sense of spontaneity and risk it brings also feeds right into a narrative about life’s unforeseeableness. Whether observing close-range the budding affection between Victoria and Sonne in some quiet moments or chasing down staircases and open streets in panicked, violent pursuit, the camera never blinks or pauses for breath. In so doing, it mirrors in visual terms the path taken by the protagonists, one that has no return nor safety net. Versatile, volatile and vibrant, it is not exactly a surprise that the international jury chaired by Darren Aronofsky ended up awarding the cinematography of this film a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.
However, it needs to be pointed out that, as daring and expressive as this approach is, it also leaves the technical insufficiencies of the camera crew plainly exposed. While there are sequences in the film that are captured with undeniable excellence, be it the short bicycle ride about town that spells a wondrous ease as we glide along or the electrifying intro in which the face of the heroine is slowly picked out from a raving crowd and purposefully tracked, the picture quality of a significant chunk of the movie is less than optimal. Often hurried and underlit, the supposed “rawness” of the imagery proves disorienting in the long haul and cannot compare to the balance of urgency and clarity, authenticity and majesty achieved by Emmanuel Lubezki on Birdman. When the cameraman strains with palpable difficulty to push his way in and out of a crowded elevator or up and down a narrow ladder, for example, with the focus blurred and the view shaking terribly all in service of continuity, one wonders if a bit of stubborn bravado has compromised the creative value of the choice.
An even bigger problem attributable to this dare of a directorial decision is that the writing is just not up to par. From a story by Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Eike Frederik Schulz, the film is most likely not scripted but extensively improvised. The improvisation is by itself not an issue, but when you can tell the actors are making things up to say on the spot pretty much all the time, it gets painful. Long-winding chitchats lacking structure and low on substance take up stretches of screen time, during which you hope nothing more than for somebody to cut the filler out, reorganize the words into meaningful dialogues and snap some life into things. Paraphrased: it is the best argument for the invention of editing. As the not negligible amount of walk-outs at the film’s press screening at the Berlin Film Festival would suggest, it’s not this reviewer alone who finds various meandering talks between the protagonists insufferably mundane and padded.
Even when judged independently, the story is not nearly perfect. Plot-wise, the transition around the 2-hour mark that sees the film switch to full-blown Bonnie-and-Clyde mode feels slightly awkward, resulting in 20 subsequent minutes plagued by implausibility and a pettiness typical of German run-of-the-mill crime TV. Also hurting the movie is the unsatisfactory characterization of Victoria. Although we do get a peek into her backstory about how she landed in Berlin with dashed dreams longing for a new start, many of her decisions at the following turns of events remain mystifying if not downright improbable. And without connecting with her motivations every step of the way, the emotional investment of the viewer, including the payoff at the end, is regrettably held in check.
Despite these rather harsh critique, Victoria is ultimately a film well worth seeing and bound to find fans. Beyond the sheer effort that went into enabling this unbroken optical illusion, both the director and his principal cast show unmistakable promise. Schipper is at his best when crafting fleeting moments of happiness. The aforementioned bike ride scene is supplemented by a deliberate vacuum of sound and the sudden touch of music, which add to the sense of freedom, carelessness, and in their transience give the interlude a sigh-like quality. These sentiments are anything but random as well. They reflect with striking accuracy what urban Berlin has come to stand for. It’s a refuge for the young and lost, detached and unsettled. By capturing such feelings of cherished impermanence, Schipper has the pulse of a great city firmly in his grip. Moreover, both Costa and Lau offer strong portrayals. To watch them perform from the highest of highs to the most desolate of depths, unedited and ever-evolving, is like witnessing a live stunt act. Although they have not been given the material from which a performance could really take flight, theirs are technically superior work that is all the more impressive for the challenge posed. As summarized in opening, Victoria is not going to please everybody. But even its most ardent detractors would probably admit to being knocked sideways by this abnormally, almost foolishly ballsy experiment of a movie.
Zhuo-Ning Su is a PhD candidate in law at the Free University of Berlin. His writing on film has appeared in The Berlin Film Journal and EXBERLINER.