Cities like London can kid you. Most of us have stayed awake through the night at some point. When we are older, it happens indoors, and the night passes amidst secure warmth. We have nothing to concern us other than our private thoughts. Sometimes it is different. In a city during the early hours of the morning it is possible for the young to believe the excitement never stops. Later, when trains have been missed, all the streets are empty and redundant. There is nowhere to go and nothing that will help pass the time. Meaningless hours have to be endured until the darkness disappears, dawn arrives and the trains start. Silliness has been exposed, and much promise has been lost. The world and our capacity are not what we thought. Our capacity for drama and excitement has been revealed as impotence, and we feel microscopic. If you do not know what I mean, your youth was more organised than mine.
The plot of Victoria is absurd except it is not because it is much more than a plot. A young woman who happens to be a failed concert pianist meets four young men and before the morning arrives she has helped them to rob a bank. What we watch in Victoria is not weak plotting but adolescent nonsense, the kind that many of us just avoid but will always remember. Four young men obliged to pretend that they are tougher than they are meet a young girl, Victoria, who has an inadequate sense of herself and others. All are fumbling through life. Even their attempts at pleasure are chaotic. Faced with complications created by others their adolescent nonsense will not be wiped clean by the dawn.
Victoria plays The Mephisto Waltz by Liszt for the young Berliner, Sonne, who acts as if he is the leader of the four young men. Mephistopheles was the agent of the Devil who tempted the scholar Faust with riches on earth. Goethe and Marlowe were inspired to recreate the legend in classic tragedies. The novel by Klaus Mann transfers the story to Nazi Germany. In the plays by Marlowe and Goethe the scholar Faust had to agree to serve the Devil in Hell for eternity. To be fair the Nazis were not quite as demanding, which in a sense is the point that Mann makes. Why do we let authority bully us for such pathetic prizes?
Victoria can be interpreted as a modern version of Faust. The bank job that the young people reluctantly agree to commit is a payment of a debt by one of the young men to a gangster. The gangster is a piece of slime and an obvious symbol of Mephistopheles. But temptation and obligation also exist within the young people, and by the end of the film it is impossible to identify the devils and the tempted, the innocent and the guilty, the wilful and the submissive. The truth is that we can be both the Devil and Faust. It depends on where we are, whom we meet and what is happening.
The names of the production companies in the opening titles, The Match Factory, Monkey Boy, Radical Media, promise something unconventional and independent. No one should be disappointed. Victoria is filmed in one continuous 238-minute take. The only one-take film that compares to Victoria that I know of is Russian Ark and all that took place in one building. Russian Ark was impressive because it involved ballroom sequences but most of those actors only danced choreographed steps and grinned. In Victoria the actors had to follow a twelve-page script and improvise. In the 238 minutes of Victoria we see, without camera cuts, a bank robbery, disco dancing, a shootout with police, wanderings around Berlin, a climb to a rooftop, a couple of scuffles and much more. Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock eat your heart out, or human ambition, where would we be without it? The banal Children Of Men was overpraised because it had one-take action sequences. Whether a film or just an extended sequence a one-take approach requires meticulous planning. A simple mistake by an actor, and it has to begin again. Because of the high-risk improvisation, Victoria feels natural and spontaneous. The planning and detail required for a 238-minute film that roams across the city of Berlin is beyond the imagination of most of us but not for director Sebastian Schipper and his cameraman Sturia Brandth Grøvien.
In the credits prominence is given to Grøvien in the same way Orson Welles acknowledged Gregg Toland the cameraman on Citizen Kane. Sturia Brandth Grøvien does more than simply record the action as he follows the actors around Berlin. Like us in the audience, he responds to the drama in front of his lens. The voyeur with the camera is more like a ghost. He alternates between being remote and curious, guarded and sympathetic. This means the one take in Victoria is more than technical virtuosity. It challenges cinema aesthetics. The intimate and relentless camera denies snap judgements about the characters and insists that the viewer becomes a participant in the proceedings. As happens in real life, we feel inadequate because we are unable to respond to the difficulties the characters endure. Rather than watch these people for 238 minutes we have lived with them. At the end of the film the young woman Victoria feels close enough to touch. This intimacy and participation between actors and audience ensure that Victoria is polemic. We may not care for the characters, the woman is silly and the young men are boorish, but we realise that none of these people, despite their flaws, deserve to be the criminals they will become. Strangers can be defined as villains who deserve punishment. For those in our lives whose limitations and reduced opportunities have shaped their errors we have sympathy and even a sense of responsibility. All this is evoked by Victoria.
The opening scene in the film takes place in a nightclub. The disco dancing is not attractive. The music is sparse and repetitive. Victoria dances by herself, grins and plays with her hair. It appears that all modern society can offer the innocent is an escape into mindlessness and self-absorption. The opening encounter between Victoria and the four men that follows fills half an hour of the film. We watch them mess around and enjoy being daft. It should be tedious and it may be but we stay interested. The characters are already being defined by future doom. The conversation is nothing but noise, and the dreams are inarticulate. There is nothing else for these people but to take risks. The tilt to romance is a feeble attempt by Victoria and Sonne at self-protection. Failure scars everyone in the group. Victoria lacks the skills to complete her studies to qualify as a concert pianist, Dude the driver cannot stay sober, the swaggering Blinker lacks courage, tough guy Boxer is weakened by memories of ‘doing a bad thing’ and Sonne acts as a leader but wants someone who will let him be dependent. All are vulnerable to the temptations of the agents of the Devil and all will have obligations that the fortunate and the strong can sidestep.
When killing time in a city where all the people have decided to go to sleep, emotions change as the hours pass. There is always one point when you will feel less than you believed yourself to be. This happens even without being obliged to help in bank robberies. Victoria and the others experience a wide range of emotions as they negotiate the night, respond to temptation and discover their obligations. We become aware of how their lives and ours include moments of selfishness and generosity, stupidity and competence, courage and fear, loyalty and betrayal, defeat and triumph, trust and suspicion. Not only are these moments short lived they only exist because we are short sighted and fail to realise that they will be soon superseded by the alternatives. Even the moment of death, which is as permanent as it gets, is not recognised. In Victoria it surprises everyone. The one person who is around long enough to experience death closes his eyes believing something else will happen next. No wonder we are willing to sleep and abandon our emotions to dreams we have been programmed to not understand. The alternative is the nonsense that can happen in the early hours of the morning, when we are on empty streets and in the company of strangers, and when we experience transformations that are beyond our control. It took three attempts to provide one successful complete take of Victoria. The experience for the actors and technicians must have been exhausting. All have the satisfaction of knowing that they participated in the making of a masterpiece. That was some night in Berlin.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.