When someone first told me about this Berlin film shot in one continuous take, I flat out refused to see it. It will be rubbish I said. How is it possible to make a good film in just one take? Editing exists for a reason you know. And so on…
Then, more people talked to me about it, and I decided to go along and see what all the fuss was about. Yes, I am easily persuaded. It has led to many bad decisions. The muttered answer to my mother’s question, “If everyone jumped off a bridge would you do it too?” was always, “Yeah, probably.”
Luckily, seeing Victoria was not a bad decision. In fact, it turned out to be a unique and powerful cinematic experience.
The film opens with strobe lighting, pumping music, a camera pushing through a crowded dance floor until it settles on a girl dancing with abandon – in ecstasy or agony? It’s hard to tell.
This is Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman who ended up in Berlin after realising she hasn’t got what it takes to be a professional pianist in the highly competitive world of classical music. Now, she works at a cafe in Mitte during the day, and parties at night.
As she heads out of the club, she encounters four young men; Sonne, Blinker, Fuss and Boxer. They are Berliners, who can’t get into the club. They invite her to accompany them so she can see the ‘real Berlin’, which, as Sonne (Frederick Lau) puts it, ‘Isn’t in the clubs, where any Spanish person can get in.”
Victoria goes along. Like me, she is easily persuaded. We follow with a sense of trepidation: Do these boys pose a threat, or will they be some fun company for this lonely girl?
They turn out to be a good bunch. The dialogue is funny, with that quality of long nights and early hour conversations. But the film continues to play on that edge between lightheartedness and darkness. Like when Victoria stands too close to the edge of a rooftop. She is exhilarated – young and free – but she is also reckless. After all, the pianist dream she has been training for since childhood has been taken away, leaving an abyss.
All this sets up her character for what follows: Victoria is drawn into a criminal plot with the boys. Although this provides a welcome spike in pace and tension, it introduces a few implausible plot developments and characters – most notably the villainous mastermind, who looks like he got lost on his way to a James Bond film set.
This is where the power of the single take works its magic – the camera relentlessly pulls us along – we, like Victoria, have little pause for doubts or distractions. We’re along for the ride whether we like it or not. That tension, between everything turning out fine and everything being damned keeps us engaged. We are rooting for these characters. Inevitably, however, the plot twists towards a final, dark ending after a fatal police shoot out.
Throughout all this, the camerawork, by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen who won a won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale for his extraordinary artistic contribution for work on the film, is stunning – not to mention the tireless work of the talented actors. After two hours and twenty minutes, when Victoria finally walks away from the camera, leaving us behind, we feel the ache of separation. We want to continue, to see where she will go, what she will do.
The main character of the film, despite its title, is not Victoria, but Berlin, where the action plays out – from techno clubs to blocks of flats, spätkaufs to car chases along Zimmerstrasse. However, the city is not just a setting – it is the basis for the film’s preoccupations and themes. What is the ‘real Berlin’ and how is it changing?
The last image, of a Spanish girl walking past a Rolex shop towards a horizon towering with cranes at the dawn of a new day, holding a bag of money in her hands – hands that used to make art when she played the piano but are now stained with the blood of Berliners – speaks for itself.