The story follows the journey of a police van as it travels through the riotous streets of Cairo during the chaos of 2013. The van becomes filled with people from all sides; Muslim Brotherhood protesters, anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters and everyone else caught up in between.
The van becomes a microcosm of Egyption society, and like Egyptian society, it is fraught with divisions and violence. As the van moves along, picking up young and old, male and female, the heat inside rises. At one point it becomes so hot that the people trapped in it risk suffocation — a frequent occurrence during the revolution.
Those inside the van, like the audience, have no idea where the van is going. Limited to the tight, crowded view from the inside with only the narrow windows and grate in the roof providing glimpses to the world outside, we feel as powerless and apprehensive as the characters. The van moves relentlessly on, pelted by rocks, targeted by shooters, and rocked by protesters and helpers, even though there seems to be no destination. The prisons, after all, are full.
Egypt, like the van, is undergoing a violent upheaval, and the people in it have no choice but go with it. Families are split up, friendships broken, and new alliances are formed. In the end, however, all descends into turmoil, confusion, and tragedy.
Of course, he’s right. Berlin is a city of pallid men with thin mustaches who take themselves very seriously, artists dressed in black, and cavernous buildings where people from around the world come to be creative without worrying about paying the rent.
The film focuses on one building in particular – the Glass House, based loosely on the Parisian house of the same name and the group surrounding Andre Breton that gathered there. It starts just after the death of one their members, Jacques Vache, and the arrival of Lexia, a troubled artist. Lexia stirs up tensions between Andre, the writer who runs the house, and Tristan, who plans to violently disrupt a pop artist’s upcoming show.
Between these two plots is the art; late night photo sessions, poetry readings, games to access the subconscious, a man wearing a pig’s head saying ‘I am bored.’ These scenes are both ridiculous and magical, stylistically shot by cinematographer Michal Englert, and wonderfully scored by Daniel Wohl. But while the artists are frolicking, the bills are piling up. They risk losing their space, which provides an apt comment on gentrification in Berlin but also pulls the film in yet another direction.
The number competing story-lines and characters leads to a lack of focus. Who, exactly, is Lexia, and what does she represent? What are the relationships between these people? What is the role of art in our world? These questions are touched upon but never fully explored. Similarly, the film seems caught between its own surrealist elements and its traditional narrative drive, never fully embracing either.
Elixir looks fabulous and has some funny moments, but, like the surrealist movement of the 1920s, ends up feeling fractured.
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.
Have you been seeing posters like this all over Berlin? Wondering what it’s all about? Guest-blogger Pat O´Day investigated…
The New York-based experimental theatre company Nature Theater of Oklahoma is in Berlin for the Foreign Affairs Festival. The critics love them. I remember having seen one of their shows at a different festival some five years ago. It was the remake of a Rambo movie shot in the apartment of the sole actor, who played along on stage.
The origin of the company’s name comes from Kafka´s incomplete first novel Amerika, in which a company of the same name promises employment for everybody. Repeating this promise to the citizens of Berlin, anyone interested could come along for an interview at a set date. More than 120 people turned up.
While people waited to be interviewed, cameras swarmed around them and a cast member drew their portraits. She did not look at the drawings at any point during the process. Therefore, it was not surprising that some bore only a slight resemblance to their subjects, but rather turned out skewed and cross-eyed as if they had been inspired by Picasso´s Weeping Woman series.
Then we had some one-on-one time with a video camera. It was not quite Andy Warhol´s fifteen minutes of fame. We had four minutes and twelve seconds to spontaneously answer questions about ourselves and what we thought the company could do for Berlin. It almost felt like a regular job interview.
I received an email the next day, inviting me to return to the venue an hour later. The organisers must have just told everybody who went through the process to come back. They could not possibly have found the time to watch all those casting videos, which will also provide footage for upcoming art projects.
During their time in Berlin, the company are staging shows almost every night, most of which are based on almost 16 hours of a cast member’s phone conversation recordings. As well as this, they are putting on two marathon events of up to fifteen hours, during which food prepared by the crew will be served, creating a completely new stage production, and making a feature-length film from scratch in a matter of weeks. Tickets have already been sold for both events. Other projects comprise a remake of Warhol´s unwatchable eight-hour slow motion documentary Empire as an animation film, and a collective diary on the whole creative process of the Berlin stint.
The organisers, dependent on the support of volunteers who can commit to several hours each day, admitted being scared of not achieving everything in time. It’s not just skills-based tasks on offer, like video-editing, providing backing vocals and setting up podcasts in the theatre foyer. According to the company, seemingly mundane tasks such as food-shopping, greeting people and ushering could be turned into art just by having somebody record these activities.
For the first day of serious work, we set out to make a music video clip featuring all volunteers, which was to be an integral part of the film. There were about forty to fifty of us. Most volunteers were in their 20s and 30s, with a fair share of internationals and people with backgrounds in the performing arts – and a female preponderance. Some volunteers looked as if they had just fallen out of their beds. The female director probably did not want to create this impression by keeping her curlers in till midday in order to maintain her somewhat weird hairstyle.
Warm up exercises began in the courtyard of the theatre. It was still a bit chilly, but when people started doing jumping jacks, they took off extra layers of clothing. The warm up culminated in dancing along to a piece of choreography intended for the video clip. It had everybody moving in sync like gingerbread men, wiggling bottoms while getting down and up again, pumping the air, hopping while turning, and pretending to be cheeky chickens stepping out of water. People took it seriously though, and tried to follow the lead as best as possible while leaving enough space for the cameras.
Next, the director tried to figure out how to shoot the whole seven minute clip without any cuts. He experimented with ways of getting people to move behind his (this time imaginary) camera as soon as they had passed so that he could find and record them in different places again. It was more about moving the crowd and dividing flows of people than guiding people individually. Personally, I found it rather tedious to pace up and down the courtyard dozens of times. Some people developed individual mannerisms and personal routines, which the director neither encouraged nor sanctioned. Perhaps it was still too early for him to be concerned about these minor aspects.
After a short break we practiced the dance we had tried during the warm up. This time it was more serious. In harmony with company policy, a different person, who normally acts as production manager, took the lead. He was not yet familiar with the moves though. So he taught and learned the choreography at the same time. Some exceptional female volunteers, who had managed to remember the routine from the warm up, were able to correct him. These ladies were also eager to discuss specific details and suggest changes. Unused to this kind of activity, I was happy to just follow along. New difficulties surfaced when the choreography, which for whatever reason we had first practiced to a waltz, was carried out to the original quadruple time song. Again, the ladies mentioned above knew how to adjust. For my own part, I was not too disappointed when this activity finally stopped.
During the break, some people were picked to help set up a vegetarian buffet for everybody. While waiting, we all received free T-shirts with the company logo. Individuals with specific skills, like video editing, were singled out to have their tasks set out. Others used the break to practice the group choreography and take notes. I left.
So what remained at the end of the day? Or rather, who would have profited and who would have loathed it? The experience certainly would have been a nightmare for anybody suffering from camera shyness. Conversely, it would have been perfect for somebody in need of a watertight alibi with cameras constantly pointed at them.
But what did it mean? On the surface it was an unusual day in the sun. We could do callisthenic exercises and recharge our batteries with free healthy food in friendly company. Although the organizers applied a non-authoritarian leadership style, they did not provide space for differing views. It was not about the volunteers rising to stardom or expressing individual creativity in the artistic process. Nor was there too much of an intellectual challenge, unless you find it in sorting out your dancing steps.
And then I have also been taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch, which may also be true for free T-shirts. I wonder how and where the recorded material will turn up. Most of all, I wonder how this atmosphere of creative chaos can give rise to anything worth watching in such a comparatively short period of time, that both critics and audiences might appreciate. Maybe this is reason enough to monitor the projects’ progress and see where everybody’s enthusiasm originates from and whether it is justified.
Yes, it is. I went to see the new James Bond film, Skyfall, there yesterday, and remembered why I stopped going there about a year ago.
They play over an hour of adverts before the film starts. First, they played normal adverts, then trailers, then they switched back to normal adverts again! It’s enough to make you lose the will to live, or, if you’re susceptible to advertising like I am, run out and buy everything in the entire world, from a Kinder egg to a Mini.
As if that wasn’t enough, they randomly stopped the film in the middle for an interval, so that people could get up and buy drinks etc, thus disturbing the audience’s suspension of disbelief and spoiling the flow of the film. I’m sure director Sam Mendes, the screenwriters and the hundreds of people who worked on the film intended it to be watched in one sitting.
A cinema – already packed and making money hand over fist – that starts interfering with the viewer’s experience to make even more money is an insult to everyone involved – creators and audience alike.
This weekend I took part in Shoot and Run, a Berlin-based project in which you and your team have just 48 hours to make a short film. It’s a regular competition, which focuses on a different area of Berlin each time.
The theme / genre that we were given at the 7pm registration on Friday evening was “Bicycle Road Movies” and the setting was Charlottenburg.
Off we set, brainstorming ideas, scripting, planning, shooting and editing the movie in order have it finished and delivered to the organisers at the location of the screening in Charlottenburg by 7pm on Sunday evening.
Working collaboratively with a wacky group of amateur film-makers, all of whom met for the first time on Friday evening, was an incredible creative experience.
I know you’re curious, so here’s our Charlottenburg-based bicycle-road-movie:
Two prizes were awarded at the end of the screening: The Jury Award and The Audience Award. Our film won the latter.
It was a brilliant experience, but badly organised; the screening details on the website were incorrect; the actual location of the screening was outdoors, which, considering the cold, rainy weather yesterday was a stupid idea, on top of which the organisers made everyone wait around in the cold for almost two hours before actually showing the films.
Of all the films shown, the only one without a bicycle in it won the Jury Prize. Why? Because after we’d been told the theme, that team came along and complained about the ‘bicycle’ bit (like getting hold of one in Berlin is akin to getting hold of a Bible in Saudi Arabia or something), so the theme was changed to suit them, and no one bothered to inform us…I would express exactly how I feel about that, but then this site would need a password due to excessive use of outrageous obscenities.