With the film calendar of 2016 so far being mostly populated by sequels, reboots, remakes, and superheroes punching each other, it is a breath of fresh air to see a film that reminds us of what is truly great about cinema: an innovative, thrilling, captivating and character driven story that comes from (and speaks to) the heart. Victoria, the third feature film from German director Sebastian Schipper, while not eligible for a foreign language Oscar due to the dialogue being mostly in English, is a cinematic marvel which deserves every possible award that could come its way.
The story follows a young woman named Victoria (portrayed by force of nature Laia Costa) who has recently moved to Berlin from Madrid. She doesn’t speak German, she doesn’t have any friends; she goes out alone. This is where we find her: at 4am in a club in Berlin, dancing to the beat, buying shots, trying (and failing) to make conversation with the local punters. Just as she’s about to give up and go home, she meets a ragtag band of locals who just got refused entry to the club: Sonne (Frederick Lau), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), Blinker (Burak Yigit), and Foos (Max Mauff, whom you might recognise from the Wachowski Sisters’ scifi Netflix series Sense8).
The lads promise to show Victoria “the real Berlin” not the manufactured ambience of the nightclub they found her in, but the local haunts and hidden spots that make up the true beauty of Germany’s most vibrant city. They’re all pretty drunk and a couple of them look slightly dodgy, but somehow she can tell they’re a good bunch. Perhaps endeared by Sonne’s awkward attempts at flirting, she tags along with them for a drink, but tells them she has to leave soon to go to work at a local café in the morning.
Denizens of any large European city will see themselves in the protagonists of the film, and that’s what’s captivating about it initially. Swapping stories and jokes with the boys, Victoria begins to feel like she might even fit in this town someday. Just before daybreak in a beautifully vulnerable scene at the café, she serenades Sonne with a beautiful Liszt piano concerto, and we are swept away into her world of competitive classical music the world she fled from to end up here, in Berlin, with Sonne and his friends. The two say goodbye as Sonne goes off to help Boxer do something sinister for ruthless mafioso Andi (André Hennicke), but Victoria is pulled in at the last minute as their getaway driver. This is the moment the film abruptly and brilliantly switches genres for a last half hour of pure adrenaline and catharsis.
Working off a 12 page bullet point synopsis, the dialogue and action in the film is entirely improvised and filmed in one continuous take with no small degree of mastery from cinematographer and cameraman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. With Alejandro González Iñárritu’s OscarwinningBirdman in recent memory (a film which famously mimicked a one take look using digital editing), many might dismiss the onetake technique as a trendy gimmick to make a potentially average film stand out.
Yet Victoria is anything but average: through the eye of the camera we join Victoria and the boys on a crazy night out, the viewer becoming a silent witness to the unfolding drama. Superbly acted by the fantastic cast in what can only be described as the ultimate improvisation, the subtle character development is revealed organically through aimless drunken conversations, and builds up to a crescendo just to come crashing down brilliantly. It’s character driven drama at its absolute best, brilliantly underlined by the excellent soundtrack by renown German composer and techno artist Nils Frahm (available to listen to on Spotify).