She Is the City
by Giovanni Marchini Camia

Dir. Sebastian Schipper, Germany, Adopt Films

“We’re true Berliners, we can show you the real Berlin,” says a character early on in Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria. Much like New York, Paris, or Rome, Berlin possesses a quality that impels directors to try and make the emblematic film of the city, the one that will capture its essence and truthfully convey its singular spirit. Unlike New York, Paris, or Rome, however, films that persuasively represent Berlin are few and far between, something that has proved especially true since the decline of the New German Cinema. The German capital may remain a favored setting for period pieces and international espionage imbroglios, but in terms of intimate present-day portraits, it seems to inspire little beyond humdrum social realism and platitudinous accounts of youthful dissipation. Victoria follows in the footsteps of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and Fred Kelemen’s Fate, perhaps the last great films to eloquently characterize the city by employing a cinematic language that reflects its contemporary zeitgeist.

That Victoria unfolds entirely in a single unedited take (apparently without Birdman-style invisible cuts) has sparked the inevitable debate of pretense vs. purpose. Here, the bravura approach belongs firmly in the latter camp, as the exhilaration generated by the prodigious 134-minute sequence shot is instrumental in illustrating the perspective of the titular heroine, a twentysomething from Madrid who recently moved to Berlin. Although the quote that opens this review is spoken by Sonne, a local whom Victoria meets outside a club at 4 a.m., it’s through Victoria that the film ends up showing us a slice of “the real Berlin.” Assigning this role to a Spanish girl who’s only lived there three months isn’t paradoxical. Like Wenders and Kelemen, Schipper understands Berlin as a city with an identity crisis. On account of Berlin’s very particular post–World War II trajectory, its ever-shifting self-image has always been deeply influenced by the presence of outsiders. In the last decade, these have in large part been the legions of young people, many of them expats, who moved to the city, drawn by its low prices, constant parties, and general bohemian vibe. Victoria’s exceptional achievement is its masterly evocation of the allure that provoked this influx.

To anyone with an experience of Berlin’s nightlife, every character, action, and line of dialogue in Victoria’s first hour will be immediately, intimately familiar. The lengthy and entrancing opening credits are underscored by a steadily swelling techno track of the type synonymous with Berlin’s club scene and, sure enough, the film opens inside a perfectly representative club—a dingy, smoke-filled cellar converted into a dance floor and bar with purposeful indifference towards décor and hygiene—the camera wading through the crowd in search of someone, zeroing in on Victoria as the song reaches its climax and capturing her face in close-up as she loses herself in raptured delight. This opening is so intoxicating in its execution, it should enthrall even those utterly mystified by the appeal of techno.

On her way out, Victoria runs into Sonne and his three friends, and, after a bit of flirtatious banter, they roam the streets together, get booze at a Spätkauf (the equivalent of a bodega), and climb up to a rooftop, where they hang out until she has to open the café where she works. The ease with which she strikes up a casual friendship with strangers her age; the carefree walking through the streets with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other; the Spätkauf that is identical to a thousand others and sells cheap alcohol around the clock; her euphoria at illegally climbing onto the roof of an apartment building that oversees the entire city; the fact that she goes straight from clubbing to work, or that she gets paid €4 an hour because that’s the only job she could get without speaking German—these are all experiences shared by countless a young person who visited Berlin and then decided to move there on a whim, infatuated with the city and its perceived promise of freedom and opportunity.

It was a felicitous choice on Schipper’s part not to script any of the dialogue and rather adopt a method à la Mike Leigh, improvising with the actors over several weeks as they devised and rehearsed the scenes together (the original script was only twelve pages long, delineating the locations and major plot points). None of what they say is particularly consequential; on the contrary, they’re mostly just shooting the shit, but their chatter strikes just the right balance of ordinariness and truth without ever tipping into cliché or addressing the viewer through obvious subtext. Like in Richard Linklater’s Before films, in which the actors also participated in writing their own parts, the convincing spontaneity of the words and their near uninterrupted delivery is intensely captivating.

This inviting naturalism is maintained until Victoria is left alone at the café, a scene that occurs roughly halfway through and functions as the film’s turning point. During this rare lull in the action, the mood is markedly different as Victoria sits in silence, gathering her thoughts while a dreamy minimalist tune by Nils Frahm, the film’s exceptional composer, plays on the soundtrack. Held in a lengthy close-up, her face gradually reveals a subtle melancholy, kindled by having left the boys and the missed opportunities this could entail. As if granting her wish, they suddenly return and from this moment the narrative veers off into genre territory, growing exponentially more implausible by involving the characters in a bank robbery that deteriorates into police chases, shoot-outs and deaths.

Victoria is unthinkable without Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s unfailingly dazzling camera work, which earned him a deserved Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale, as well as the first slot in the film’s closing credits. A covert member of the group and participant in every action, his versatile camera injects each scene with the requisite mood, conveying Victoria’s shifting frame of mind. In the exposition, as Victoria is being charmed by the boys, the camera reflects her enthusiasm by gliding and pirouetting around the characters, rushing alongside them as they run down the street or ride on Victoria’s bicycle. During moments of bliss, its movements become nigh ethereal, whereas adrenaline-fueledscenes are portrayed in shaky-cam. Whether the characters are riding in elevators, climbing ladders, or driving around in cars, it’s always there with them, each transition occurring seamlessly. Grøvlen’s instincts are impeccable throughout, constantly seizing opportunities to compellingly block shots impromptu and even helping conceal missteps by the actors, as in a heated confrontation during which Sonne drops his cigarette by mistake and Grøvlen instantly pans to his interlocutor, salvaging the scene’s intensity.

Alogistical tour de force, the sequence shot involves sustained and inventive sleight of hand. For instance, by staying close to the characters at all times and primarily capturing them in shallow focus, their surroundings remain indistinct, distracting the viewer from the improbable fact that the dozen or so locations are all within spitting distance of one another, forming a convenient and roughly circular itinerary. The same ingenuity is extended to the film’s narrative structure, with Schipper expertly filling all potential dead time so as not to relinquish any of the propulsive energy generated by the single take. A perfect example is the robbery scene, during which the camera stays outside the bank with Victoria, the getaway driver. Rather than allowing for these few necessarily idle minutes, Schipper uses them to create one of the film’s most gripping scenes: as she waits, the hot-wired car stalls and she’s unable to restart it, breaking out into a full-blown panic that transfers to the viewer.

Once Victoria transmutes into a thriller in its second half, the already brisk momentum is cranked up to a downright manic realm and every subsequent narrative development is deliberately removed from reality. From the cartoonishly villainous gangster who commissions the robbery, to the rapidity with which the characters memorize and execute a complex heist, to their staggeringly idiotic post-hoc actions—they actually go back to the club, literally around the corner from the bank, and throw €100 bills in the air—it’s all pure fantasy. This radical tonal shift is essential to the film’s portrait of Berlin. While the city might seem like a utopia for the modern youth, the actuality isn’t that straightforward and only a fraction of the many who move there without a plan end up staying for long. Rather than resort to a trite and moralistic censure of hedonism, Schipper chooses a far more engaging and nuanced way of representing the fairy tale of contemporary Berlin. In the film’s closing moments the camera finally comes to rest and, standing still for the first time, observes Victoria walking down a road by herself at dawn. As she recedes into the distance, the shot tilts up to reveal four cranes on the twilit horizon, a sight that is a permanent fixture of Berlin’s landscape with its ubiquitous construction sites, as well as a perfect symbol for a city and population in a perpetual process of transformation.