Film review | Victoria: One wild night in Berlin

The film remains a thrill ride that’s also a cinematic experience through and through • 4/5

Calm before the storm: Laia Costa is Victoria
Calm before the storm: Laia Costa is Victoria

The best thrillers are the kind where the protagonists are in way over their heads. Indeed, anything billed as a thriller that features muscle-bound supermen or otherwise naturally resourceful characters making their way out of a sticky situation without once pondering the very real possibility of imminent – and brutal – death should be banished from the genre altogether. 

Where are the ‘thrills’ otherwise, I wonder? If those elements are absent, the thing becomes just a generic action film. 

Thankfully, it appears as though we’ve currently got some filmmakers on the case who most definitely know where a well-crafted thriller is at. One of the most promising of their number is arguably Jeremy Saulnier, who with the partly-crowdfunded, gut-wrenchingly realistic and narratively stripped-down Blue Ruin (2013) reminded us that low budgets and zero stars are good ways of getting under an audience’s skin and, in his own words, “cutting them at the knees”. He followed up this formula with a slightly more polished but no less effective sophomore effort with this year’s Nazi punk splatterfest Green Room – shoving a group of clueless youths into a barricaded siege wall with a bunch of pissed off and dangerous White Supremacists led by none other than Patrick Stewart.

But before Green Room arrived on the scene to wow the critics – and, sadly, also serve as a swansong for its gone-too-soon lead actor Anton Yelchin – another film had been discreetly allowed to wow audiences worldwide with a similarly low-key-but-committed approach. It’s one that’s finally graced our shores thanks to Eden Cinemas’s newly-minted European Film Festival, and it remains a thrill ride that’s also a cinematic experience through and through. 

In Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, the eponymous protagonist (Laia Costa) appears to be of almost painfully millennial stock: the twenty-something Madrid-born but Berlin-based girl just wants to have fun in the German capital’s legendary nightlife scene while holding down a job at a local café. But after a chance encounter with the not-entirely honest but otherwise bumbling and sweet-natured Sonne (Frederick Lau), things take a darker turn. What starts off as a half-hearted flirtation after a night of clubbing quickly spirals into an urgent bout of criminal activity, as one of Sonne’s best friends, Boxer (Franz Rogowski) is strong-armed into making good on a debt he accrued while in prison.  

Boys ‘n the hood: Boxer (Franz Rogowski, centre)
Boys ‘n the hood: Boxer (Franz Rogowski, centre)

What you’ll hear talked about a lot in relation to Victoria is that it’s one of the few films to be shot in a single, continuous take, thanks to the efforts of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. And unlike other films who employ the technique as little more than a pointless gimmick (I’m looking at you, Birdman), here it enhances both the film’s immediate, all-in-one-night setup, as well as the chaotic and fragile predicament our group of unseasoned delinquents find themselves in. 

Though on the longer side of the thriller spectrum, it uses every minute well; both to build to a degree of unbearable unease once the actual guns start going off, but also to immerse us into an otherwise ordinary world of youths out for a good time. Schipper – collaborating on the script with Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Eike Frederik Schulz – risks derailing things into utter nastiness in the film’s final act – something that Saulnier actually embraced wholeheartedly with Green Room, opting for grotesque horror over gritty realism – it is course-corrected in time to let the character’s raw humanity shine in the end, warts and all. 

Visceral, immediate and impeccably crafted, Victoria is proof that Hollywood can in fact be beaten at its own game. And then some.

Victoria was screened as part of the European Film Festival, which will run until December 15 at Eden Cinemas.