Before I watched Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015), I had a quick look at its publicity. The poster and trailer emphasise both its tag line ‘One City. One Night. One Take’ and critical infatuation with its considerable technical achievement: the single 134-minute take which encompasses the entirety of the film’s action and its running time. Despite my fondness for aesthetic and technical virtuosity in cinema and the other arts, I was initially distrustful of this film’s project. Would it be closer to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) – which make use of covert cuts obscured by clever cinematographic manoeuvring or digital manipulation to offer the illusion of seamlessness – than the films of Orson Welles, Béla Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky whose mastery of the long take imbue their films with not only a heightened realism but a deep artistic sensibility?
I was also suspicious of the decision by Victoria’s marketing department to sell it as the ‘one take’ film, an act which deliberately places itself within a long line of digital experiments (starting with Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002)) which market themselves as extraordinary technical accomplishments first, successful films second. Will the film’s technical achievement function merely as a gimmick, as a form of self-congratulation to both the masterful crew and cast who somehow managed to pull off this unbelievable feat? Or will this aesthetic approach boost audience enjoyment of the film, heightening engagement with its narrative, characters and exploration of central Berlin? These are clearly fundamental questions which I will return to momentarily after a short description of the film’s plot.
Through the figure of Victoria (Laia Costa), a sympathetic protagonist whose personality is slowly revealed to us throughout the film (we soon learn that she is troubled by her failure at becoming a concert pianist despite her extraordinary talents and has settled on the measly wage she earns at her café without any better hopes for the future), we become attached to her story and plight, with a constant feeling of dread that something awful is going to occur. This sense of anxiety is intentionally coordinated by Schipper by supplying us with subtitles which reveal much about the intentions of a group of men with which she soon becomes involved (she meets the men after exiting the underground night club where we first encounter her). Her lack of knowledge of the German language (she is Spanish and has just moved to the German capital), coupled with her sense of loneliness and willingness to have a good time (and the many beers and vodka shots we see her consume) explains not just how she becomes swept up in the faux niceties of a group of dodgy, raucous men, but romantically involved with Sonne (Frederick Lau) whose humour does much to seduce Victoria. I did not feel entirely safe with Sonne but I must admit there was something charming about him.
This combination of dread and humour drives the film’s first half, until Boxer (Franz Rogowski), a skinhead and the most formidable member of the group, receives a call from the gangster he sought protection from during his stay in prison. As Fuß, the fourth member of the group, who plays little part in the film other than vomiting over Victoria’s café floor, is too incapacitated to assist Boxer, Sonne and Blinker (Burak Yigit) in their assignment, the group force Victoria to become their driver as four members are required. Victoria of course has no idea what she’s got herself into and only cooperates out of a fondness for Sonne. The film then moves to acquire its physical and emotional power through not only the quality of the subsequent drama but Schipper’s use of the long take.
The roaming long take in question seemingly traverses half of Berlin – despite the fact that all the action unfolds within the central Mitte district – moving from the opening pulsating underground night club scenes, across to the roof of a nearby apartment block, towards a small café on the corner of an empty street, into an underground car park furnished with shotgun-wielding bodyguards, momentarily pausing outside the site of a bank heist before collapsing within a hotel room bought on false pretensions. Among these various locations, we travel in stolen vehicles, taxis and by foot, negotiating the uninhabited streets of Berlin between the early hours of four and six-thirty, observing the darkness of the night subsumed by the light of the morning.
In Victoria, camera operator Sturla Brandth Grøvlen figures not as an invisible presence but as an essential piece of the story, as the eyes in which we watch the action unfold, as a window which walks and moves like a human, twisting, turning and pausing to catch breath, as he follows the film’s characters. Grøvlen’s camera, handheld and unstable, does not offer the sleekness of the Steadicam, preferring to gaze at his subjects from behind, trembling in its pursuit of the action and granting close-ups of faces only when the absence of movement authorises such measured contemplation. The undoctored image, the realistic and psychologically nuanced mise-en-scène, which resists the fragmentation of space and time characteristic of routine film editing, convinces us of the truth of what is present on the cinema screen and of our place as a participant within the action.
The long take more than any other novel addition to the cinematic experience (see digital 3D and motion simulator rides) here has the capacity to engulf us in the story world, allowing us to rediscover our physical relation to the cinematic image. One could even go as far as saying that Victoria and perhaps Gaspar Noë’s Irreversible (2002) before it, offers the 21st century version of that apocryphal first screening of the Lumière’s L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896) where the arrival of a train apparently caused audiences to flee the auditorium, screaming in terror at the realism of the image. Not in the sense that we feel the cinematic image is so real that we have to get out of its way but that it causes us to have a physical reaction to the play of light and shadow above us, to feel nauseous, to sweat, to become aware of our physical processes, the beating of our hearts, the breathing of our bodies.
And it is this direct participation with the action of the film which was most obvious to me on exiting the cinema and making my way home. I felt as if I had gone through an ordeal on a similar level to the protagonists of the film, as if I had committed a crime which I originally had no intention of perpetrating and most peculiarly that it was somehow morning (I went to the 8pm screening of Victoria). While such feelings were only momentary – the reality of Victoria’s experience and the streets of the Berlin seem far away as I write this piece the following morning – for a short period of time, I was convinced of their genuine existence. And this is due to not just the long take itself but the quality of the performances, script and direction of Victoria.
While the long take allows us to watch the film’s events unfold in real time, to bask in the creation of a realistic world unimpeded by jumps in time and space, we must also believe in the authenticity of the action filmed by Grølen. And yet, it is through the long take and the commitment to real time that we understand why Victoria goes along with the group and how her infatuation with Sonne develops over merely a few hours in the narrative world. The film needs the figure of Victoria to function and help the group with their perilous assignment, and so we must come to understand why she assists these men in such a short space of time. Of course there are the reasons outlined earlier, her loneliness, her relationship with Sonne, her inability to understand German which are reasonable explanations, yet I would argue that it is through the long take that we understand what motivates Victoria. The film allows us to see the tiny moments – the silences, the inconclusive facial expressions, the seemingly boring chatter usually cut from films – which coalesce, build and allow us to believe in the reality of what we’re seeing. This is a film which reminds me of why I go to the cinema. Go and see this film and perhaps you will come to reflect on why you go too.