Just minutes into German writer/director Sebastian Schipper's competition entry Victoria and there's no mistaking where the movie takes place: club beats, disco strobe, graffitied surroundings, anonymous bodies dancing in reckless euphoria at 4am as a young girl from Spain tries, in accented English, to flirt with the bartender she takes to be Swedish. Welcome to Berlin.
As it turns out, Berlin would serve as more than just the geographical setting of this story, which sees a group of youngsters first embracing then fleeing the night, but also a sort of spiritual underpinning if not justification for the craziness that goes down. During the first scene where the titular character Victoria has a heart-to-heart with the male lead Sonne, it's revealed that she's left behind many a dashed dreams and wasted years back in Madrid to land in the European capital of drifters and dreamers. Although this fact alone can't nearly explain her motivations and reactions later on in the film, where things spiral down to some pretty ugly depths, it's one of those cases where a city is so closely connected with a type of mindset it begins to directly help shape characterization. We get the sense that Victoria has made the leap to Berlin to actively turn back on her old suppressed self and seek liberation. Might this be the reason why, even when it's clear that the guys she meets outside the club are trouble and when their requests of her get fishier and nastier, she still plays along without much protest?
Asking questions along these lines is fun but not enough to sustain a feature film, let alone one that runs 140 minutes. A significant chunk of this movie, which proceeds in real time and is done entirely in one take, is spent on silly, insubstantial bantering between the characters. These long, at times interminable-feeling sequences are not only grating for their stupidity and repetitiveness, but do nothing to involve or raise the emotional investment of the viewer. So even when there are places where a potent feeling of empathy threatens to break out, that never truly happens and we're mostly left wondering just how foolish one has to be to do the things these kids do. This serious lacking in screenwriting aside, Victoria is not without its merits. Schipper is a fine director with an assured command of mood and atmospherics. The couple of sequences where he pulls the sound and inserts a soothing, cosmically tender music are great touches, releasing a breezy, wondrously youthful energy in the night air. It's just unfortunate that whenever the speaking resumes, everything becomes instantly less interesting.
Both leads are strong. Laia Costa displays an impressive reserve of explosive feelings she's able to tap into with great immediacy. Frederick Lau has proven time and again he's good at playing the marginalized/asocial and as the stunted, hard-boiled Sonne he gives yet another performance full of instincts and quirks. The camerawork is of course the biggest selling point of the single-shot film. Unlike Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance, however, the cinematography here is not technically flawless nor rhythmically hypnotic. While the accomplishment of clearing the thousands of logistic hurdles faced by such a project is no doubt formidable, this decision to make no edits doesn't always feel necessary and leaves a slight hint of childish bravado behind.
Another, very different Berliner film which opened the Panorama Special this year – Rosa von Praunheim's unconventional biopic Härte (Tough Love) – provides this year's Berlinale with a healthy dose of WTF-eccentricity that any self-respecting international film festival must serve. Detailing the life story of local martial arts celebrity Andreas Marquardt, the film is composed in equal parts of candid interview footage (of Marquardt as well as his longtime partner Marion) and dramatizations of his troubled past.
Making no excuses for its kitsch factor and positively delighting in being comically in-your-face, this movie magnifies its own loopiness through preposterously fake set pieces, exaggerated emotional cues and ultra-cheesy camera angles. Shot in hollow, cheap-looking black and white, the overall effect of the staged part of the film is that of a poorly produced telenovela mocking its own lack of taste.
As laughable as the blunt cinematic strokes may come across, this is certainly a story worth telling and knowing, if for no other reason than how crass Marquard's life is. From a sexually abused and physically assaulted child to a pimp with pathological hatred of women, from a sentenced and imprisoned criminal to a karate instructor for kids, this is one heck of an eventful ride. And it might possibly be argued that in order to process memories fraught with such trauma and unspeakable horrors, an approach as outrageous as this would actually be called for.
In that case, production and performances would of course be impossible to judge by regular criteria. One could just see the film at their own risk. If the enthusiastic response at its premiere screening in Zoo Palast is any indication, however, not a few should be won over by its very peculiar brand of charm.
Victoria screens Feb 8, 14.30 (Friedrichstadt-Palast),
Härte screens Feb 8, 14.30 (Cubix 9), Feb 12, 18.30 (Neues Off), Feb 14, 22.30 (Colosseum).