Annabel is one of the incoming editors of our print magazine (Zoe Dzunko is the other incoming editor), taking over from Ellena Savage and Gillian Terzis. In order to celebrate the imminent release of Annabel’s first issue, TLB31, today we are republishing a piece of Annabel’s that we first published in TLB27.
It’s 4:30am. A DJ Koze techno beat and a pulsing white strobe announce that we have landed in Berlin. The bass growls, hi-hats skip out of time, and the eponymous Victoria emerges dancing alone through a cloud of dry ice.
German director Sebastian Schipper’s head-turning new film Victoria opens on Berlin clubland to present an experiential portrait of the city. In 2015, Berlin’s traumatic history and transient nature haunts its inhabitants, who live aggressively from day-to-day, preferring to occupy themselves with DIY art and activism over five-year plans; fittingly, Schipper’s nocturne plays out in real time (ie. the depiction of an event takes the same length of time as the actual event), spanning the hours of roughly 4am to 7am. What’s more, the morning is captured in a daredevil 140-minute, single camera take.
Unlike Woody Allen’s rhapsodising urban reveries, Schipper offers no stylised vision of the city’s icons. There’s no TV Tower, Victory Column or Wall cameo in Victoria. Instead, the film roves through twenty-two locations in a small shooting area around the unromantic concrete of Kochstraße as it focuses on not how a city looks but how it feels. In place of historic landmarks we have Berlin archetypes: Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish twenty-something newly arrived, working as a waitress, and unable to speak German but hungry for new friends. Exiting the club, she meets four self-described “real Berliners”—Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuss—loutish, Ossi down-and-outers in hoodies, track pants and tatts. Bravado and local slang (“Alter!”) peppers their broken English—the common language for most of the film—mirroring the international city’s streets.
The puppy-eyed Sonne (Frederick Lau) persuades Victoria not to go to sleep quite yet, to stick around for one last beer and see “his world.” The first hour unfolds like a Berlin adaptation of Before Sunrise (1995), paying tribute to the specificity and magic of the vagrant moment. The film defers to the ludic flow of Victoria and Sonne’s pre-dawn conversation, and their encounter plays out sweetly between pavement beers, tipsy bike rides and a nostalgic rooftop joint. “We have been coming here since we was one years old,” Sonne narrates, and Victoria, now “Sister”, whoops over the sleeping city, longing to belong.
The film’s first hour romanticises Berlin’s historic function as an ephemeral projection site of dreams, having been the capital of the Prussian, Weimar, Nazi, Communist and finally re-unified German states. “Berlin is a city that never is,” wrote art critic Karl Scheffler over a century ago, “but is always in the process of becoming.” This quixotic image is latched onto by Victoria as the disillusioned Conservatorium dropout, by Boxer as the ex-jailbird trying to set things right, and by Sonne’s constant blags, re-imagining the city as his to possess: “This is my car,” he tells Victoria, grinning, before the real owner materialises and threatens to beat them up.
Later, as the pair load up on beers and mini-champagne bottles from a late-night corner store (Späti) in front of its sleeping owner, Sonne swears that tomorrow he will return to pay for the stolen drinks. He could be speaking for all Schipper’s Berliners when he says, “Shhh! Don’t wake him up from his dreams. Maybe he has a good dream, you know?” This vision of the city as a space of infinite possibility acts as the staging ground for Schipper and Grøvlen’s precocious filmmaking experiment.
During the rooftop scene, Victoria points out the café that she must open at 7am on the street below. Its setting is part of a carefully choreographed route and use of fabricated locations that enabled cameraman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen to shoot the entire morning in one breathless take.
Grøvlen runs indefatigably with the actors like a pack animal: he circles, closes in, cranes over shoulders, jumps in and out of cars. Rather than the sweeping, fluid movements of other one-shot features like Russian Ark or Birdman, his hand-held camera shifts in and out of focus, at times shaky and vaguely motion sickness-inducing, likened by Schipper in interviews to that of a war photographer. The rawness of this pseudo-documentary-style is exhilarating. When the group climbs the stairs to the roof Grøvlen’s camera lurches up too, nipping at Victoria’s sneakers, while during calmer scenes the mise en scène is often precise, graceful, earning Grøvlen a Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale.
Because the length of a 35mm film reel (305 metres) limits a shot to eleven minutes, the one-shot feature-length movie has only become a possibility with the advances of digital cinema. Over fifty years ago, when Hitchcock decided that he wanted to make a film that appeared to be an unbroken single shot, he ingeniously transitioned five of the shots by ducking behind a character’s back to a dark close-up of their jacket and dissolving, changing reels, and then filming the next shot in the same position, using invisible edits to sew the transitions together, similar to the post-production of Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014).
Rope (1948) plays out in the real time of a dinner party; Hitchcock evoked the sensation of time passing by staging the sun ‘setting’ across his Manhattan skyline-backdrop using neon lights, fibreglass clouds and a travelling sun. Later in interviews with Truffaut, he dismissed the film as an indulgence and said, “No doubt about it; films must be cut.” Jump to 2002, and Sukorov’s 96-minute Russian Ark became the first feature film to pull off the single-shot feat, filmed on a thirty-five–kilogram Steadicam system mounted on cinematographer Tillman Büttner’s shoulders, swirling through the chambers and corridors of Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.
The one-shot feature is still an astonishing filmmaking coup. Victoria’s poster tagline—“One girl. One city. One night. One take.”— encourages watching the film with an eye to the elaborate filmmaking. It has led some critics to label Victoria a ‘stunt’, which is exactly how Hitchcock described Rope , a term that evokes the boldness bordering on madness involved in trying to compose a film without an editor. The shot that became Victoria was the third full-take done by the cast including 150 extras, with mostly improvised dialogue extending a twelve-page script. It’s impossible to watch the film without being struck by the technical and logistical mastery demanded by its production—as well as its risks. Alert to the incredible pressure on the cast (and crew) at each moment to not fuck up, their ragged faces are marked by the unglamorous signs of real-time method acting: sweat, smudged make-up, tears, snot.
In contrast, Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is a love letter to cinematic editing. The wildly-praised, 24-hour–long installation is a digital mash-up of clips from thousands of (mainly American) films and some television shows that reference time in some way: a clock in a frame, a glance at a wristwatch, a mention in direct speech, an abstract emotional response.
Those who have witnessed The Clock will remember its strange, hypnotic power, which is heightened by the fact that the installation is programmed to unfold in synch with its audience’s time. The desire of cinemagoers to be ripped out of time is unsettled: thanks to its anti-narrative, you literally watch time passing. The silky transitions of Marclay’s artful, laborious visual and sound editing1 achieve a disarming false continuity as thousands of clips become an immersive collective assemblage. In the blink of an eye, cities, eras and protagonists swap: at 10:20pm Ben Stiller in pyjamas picks up the phone on his bedside table, “Hello?” (Envy) and Maggie Gyllenhaal soaking in a bathtub answers (Secretary). Thanks to the omnipresent clocks, it works.
Whereas Russian Ark employs its one shot to time travel, whirling through three hundred years of Russian history in one labyrinthine building, Victoria uses the technique to imbue each of its 140 minutes with immediacy and intimacy. Incredibly, The Clock achieves both effects: as a real-time film, it depicts the impression of each passing second while, simultaneously, the insane editing temporally lurches forward and flashes back, treating time as a malleable material, a filmmakers’ plaything for shits and giggles.
The results of this doubled manipulation are mesmerising and surprising, highlighted in its ability to make manifest the bone-deep, circadian rhythms and patterns of time itself: the supple moods, expectations, tensions and subconscious associations that we carry into each distinct hour—the thrill of midnight, the calm of sundown. It illuminates our relationship to, say, 4am via how 4am appears on our screens: Lynchian dream sequences, nightmares, shadowy monsters and restless nights. The findings expose unspoken rules about the representation and experience of time on screen. The hours between 3–5am were reportedly some of the most difficult for Marclay and his team of researchers to track down precise cinematic references to, suggesting the vague and timeless experience of the early morning, as reflected in the opening of Victoria. In comparison, the rising urgency of daybreak is realised in The Clock with the unwelcome intrusion of alarms and wake-up calls.
As if following this rulebook of cinematic time laid down by The Clock, around 5:30am Victoria and Sonne’s romantic tête-à-tête is abruptly interrupted by a phone call. A sinister appointment looms. The floating, oneiric pre-dawn gives way as the four Berliners must hastily rob a bank to re-pay Boxer’s jail-time debt. Victoria, quick to trust her new friends, gets roped into assisting.
The film shifts gears from moonlit indie romance to the blistering crime thriller more common to Marclay’s montage. Suddenly everyone is vulnerable, yelling, holding guns and obsessively looking at their watches. As Zadie Smith’s essay on The Clock comments, “If we see a lot of James Bond and Columbo it is because time, staged time, is their natural milieu. Fake clocks drive their narrative worlds: countdowns and alibis, crime scenes.” Time re-asserts itself: “Five fucking minutes!” Boxer hisses into Sonne’s ear.
The group enter an underground car park populated with muscle to meet Schipper’s peroxide-blond, sneering caricature of a German mob boss, delivering farcical lines like, “Bitch, download!” and Berlin morphs into the gamer territory of Run Lola Run (1998) in which Schipper acted, before swerving once more. Grøvlen’s camera speeds around Berlin, evoking Lola’s mad dashes and desperate close-ups of various clock faces (at least three of which are sampled in The Clock). Despite the characters’ protests, the bank job becomes a rush against time: “Can’t we postpone it?” / “Why does this have to happen today?” / “You want us to do this now?”
While this narrative arc of corrupted dreams has been enacted by countless Hollywood would-be crims, the familiar plot feels newly minted thanks to the effects of the unbroken shot. The tension is unrelenting, and the real-time action means we experience and react to events as the characters do. More than a slick selling point, the one take defines and electrifies every moment of Victoria.
While the robbery occurs off-screen, we’re left waiting in the car out front with Victoria, an anxious mess (a suspenseful trick also seen in Spring Breakers’ Chicken Shack heist). When she can’t re-start the getaway vehicle, each second that she fumbles, panics, and pummels her fists against the steering wheel is excruciating. I imagine this shared experience could only be heightened by synching time and screening Victoria from 4:30–7am, fighting fatigue and entering the woozy, trance-like space reported by those who marathoned through to the early hours of The Clock.
In the wake of the credits, the first cut, we stumble from the theatre technically awed and emotionally blasted—nerves frazzled, bodies tightly wound up, feeling as knackered as Victoria and Sonne look—as if we, too, have been up all night, running around the streets of Berlin.
1. For three years Marclay obsessively edited at his laptop, working sometimes ten- even twelve-hour days, suffering bouts of back pain and, at one point, with his fingers bandaged together to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome.↩