Finally settling back into reality after a whirlwind summer of travel, I can finally hear my thoughts again, and especially the ones circling the most memorable moments of the season. When traveling in Germany for the first time, I didn’t really have any special agenda of tourist activities to check off a list, and kept my mind open to whatever was thrown at me. With the exception of wanting to take out a rowboat in Hamburg, the only thing I had on any sort of “sight-seeing list” was to see a German movie at the cinema. As a cineaste, it was my request to explore a foreign cinema and perhaps the feeling of watching a movie that I wouldn’t understand through language, but could try to understand through visual empathy. Through conversations with a few Berliners, we decided to see the film, “Victoria,” which had just come out, and since it was about a Spanish girl in Berlin, it was mostly in English— considered the “international” language. I was told there would be bits I wouldn’t understand, but overall it was easy to follow… of course, it would be nice to have a German with you to translate, but not necessary. We took the train to the Kino International, about to embark on one of the most memorable cinema experiences I’ve ever had.
Not only was the cinema theatre beautiful, with its grid of ceiling lights through the entrance, its retro aesthetic kept up from the 1960s in almost pristine condition— we sat in oversized red velvet chairs, next to a 30-foot window, drinking wine from the bar in the lobby, thus making it the only cinema I’ve ever been to where you can bring alcohol inside to enjoy with the movie. We sat amidst the other movie-goers, casually hearing their conversations in German, or French, or English. The previews came up, and I watched Hollywood movies with stars like Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston play in dubbed German, making the actors look and sound like a South Park episode. Finally the opening credits started for the feature, and you could feel the hush over the seats, as we were all curious about this “must-see” film.
‘Victoria’ starts in at the wee hours of the morning on a typical Berlin night, at a thumping, underground club. The strobes and unfocused camera shots gave the viewer a sense of really being there in the moment, something that never leaves throughout the film. Focusing on a Spanish girl dancing by herself (Laia Costa), we are meeting the main character. Since she is foreign to Germany, she speaks in English to the bartender, and it isn’t until she’s leaving the club that you really realize that it’s been only one continuous shot. The night goes on, as Victoria gets on her bicycle, she meets a crew of young Berliner men on the street. As they casually charm each other, you realize that now she will continue on her night with new friends. You get lost in their conversations, how they get to know each other, and how their characters become more complex and flawed and likable. It hit a note with me, personally, and I think everyone can relate to experience a day or night that can quickly turn corners to unexpected situations. The one shot keeps going to unravel the rest of the night into extremes.
The story twists and turns, from a perfectly anchored budding love story, to a heartfelt piano performance, to a bank heist, to party scenes, to car chases and gunfire and pure adrenaline. All just one shot. The film touches on human connection, desperation, ecstasy, and past-failure. After what seems like an endless array of events, the night is turning into day and the story is coming to an end. But since the whole movie was one continuous shot, it felt like the purest form of film empathy. It almost felt like you, the viewer, just had this youthful, spontaneous night, never knowing or caring how it could unfold before you— for the better, or worse. It was charged with genuine emotion, and perfectly solidified that feeling of being young and living in the moment in a new city, and how terrifying it can be. It was palpable.
Laia Costa was a refreshing actress, alongside Frederick Lau and the rest of the mischievous cast. Her character was much more layered than a lot of female characters I see in general. The dialogue reveals her failure to become a professional pianist, accompanied with one of the most beautiful renditions of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz.” It is a window into her psyche foreshadowing her choices, but also a tender moment before the rest of the storm. The actors floored me, and after learning they only shot it 3 times (the third take was the final film), I have utmost respect for that kind of technical discipline. And although the cast was truly exceptional, it didn’t surprise me that the first credit revealed when the last scene faded out was the DP, Sturla Brandthe Grovlen, who stuck right alongside those actors the whole way, and with poetic yet sharp cinematography.
It wasn’t at the end that I cried, which is where the usual tear-jerking scene comes to surface, but it was unexpectedly during an early scene when Victoria first agrees to go along with Sonne and the gang, sneaking up on a rooftop to hang out. It was when the film was still setting up the friendship of this crew with Victoria, with many awkward or silly glances, while music emphasizes the “between” moments. Boosting her up to a ladder, Victoria is the first to reach the roof. The cinematographer and actress perfectly grasp the timing and rush of breaking through the ceiling door, articulating exactly the feeling of being young and free. The exciting feeling of knowing she is living her life how she wants and who knows what’s to come. Maybe it was the wine, but I teared up. I wasn’t even crying from sadness, but from empathizing with her sense of raw sincerity paired with the camera positions and adrenaline. It felt visceral and transporting. And that is what a great movie can do. And if they can do it all in one shot, all the better.