A night out has, to me, always felt like putting on a show. Like a theatre performer, you add layers of lotions, colours and kohl before stepping out into the night, ready to be your most fantastic self until the morning.
The first time we see Victoria (Laia Costa), the titular character of Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 one-take wonder, she isn’t quite so adorned on the outside, but is wearing enough bravado to fool us.
We’re dropped in to the film via a Berlin nightclub, electric beat pumping incessantly, blurry shapes dancing whilst doused in neon blue. Victoria is moving joyfully to the music, with her hair down and a wide grin on her face. To us, she is like any other reveller – but as the smile drops and she struggles to communicate with the bartender, we realise she’s a stranger in this city, and that she’s alone.
But not for long.
As she leaves the club, she’s joined by four rowdy boys being denied entry. It’s 4am, and Victoria is ready to head home – but the boys have different ideas. The leader, Sonne (played by Frederick Lau), sparks up conversation and convinces Victoria to join them for a drink. ‘We can show you the real Berlin’, they promise.
At first glance, you might question her decision to go with them. Is it wise to go off with four men you’ve never met before, in a city you hardly know? But from their first interaction, the boys instantly feel like brothers to her; fun and friendly and charming. Sonne clearly has a twinkle in his eye for the Spanish stranger, and as they leave the club they descend into the kind of hectic improvised chatter that only comes from intoxicated merriment and a desire to impress.
With Victoria being Spanish and the boys German, there’s a language barrier that affects the group dynamic from the start. They both have the common ground of English, but Sonne, Boxer and the rest often move into German so as to converse without Victoria being aware – to let slip some honesty, exposing themselves to the audience, but not Victoria herself.
The technical achievement of shooting an entire movie in one take is immense, and though there are inevitable lulls in action and the cohesion of the dialogue, the spectacular use of music and cinematography more than make up for it. A cynic might say the music is used as patchwork to cover up any mistakes, but maybe this is no bad thing. It allows the viewer to see the authenticity in the characters’ interactions without trying to follow the melee of what they’re actually saying.
On one occasion, the dialogue fades out and atmospheric acoustics enter our ears, providing a wistful soundtrack as Victoria rides on the back of Sonne’s bike and the others run joyfully after her. It’s a portrayal of a real-life movie moment, the kind of snapshot that stays with you in your memory of a pivotal or meaningful evening. As they climb up to the roof and look out at the Berlin skyline, it feels like when you’re sat staring out of a bus or train window, lost in the music of your headphones, imagining the tune as the soundtrack to your life.
When we’re out in a bar or a club, cloaked by darkness or drowned out by the sound of chatter and music, it can feel like an opportunity to take on a whole new identity. Whether you’re there for a night of escapism from the mundanity of everyday life, to have a good time with your friends or in search of affection, the performative act of drinking and dancing so as to catch someone’s eye across the room makes every beat that pounds through your feet thrum with potential.
If we do meet someone, we figure out the best and most interesting stories we can tell to reel them in. Sometimes the stories are true, and sometimes we just wish they are.
Boxer is a volatile character. We learn fairly early on that he’s been in prison, but we never find out specifically why. The story he chooses to tell Victoria is that ‘I’m not a bad guy, I just did a bad thing’. Of course, no villain ever actually believes that they’re the bad guy – that’s what makes them so dangerous. From the start, Boxer is energetic, aggressive and yet charming. You’re wary of him to an extent, but there’s a sincerity in his desire to make clear to Victoria that he’s not a bad person, not really. She believes him, and we do too.
There’s a strong sense of camaraderie between Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuss that tells us these boys go back a long way; there’s a history. The extent of that history and the lengths they will go to for each other are revealed very slowly to Victoria throughout the night – by their choosing at first, and more quickly as things escalate out of their control later.
There are several scenes where the masks slip most and we get the truest glances at who these characters are. The most notable is when Sonne walks Victoria back to the cafe at which she has to start work in a matter of hours – in the midst of the long night, it can be easy to forget that she has to get back to her ‘normal life’ soon, the one she lives when the sun comes up.
They go to say goodbye, but neither wants the night to end. If they can stretch out their time in the darkness a little bit longer, they don’t have to face the morning just yet. Victoria offers to make Sonne a drink, and so he stays.
He spots the piano in the cafe, and makes the latest in a long line of intentionally transparent claims in an effort to impress Victoria – ‘I’m a professional piano player, you know this?’. Lau and Costa’s chemistry and intimacy in this moment is intoxicating. After his lame attempt at a tune, Victoria takes the banter to a new level, saying ‘I think I’m falling in love with you right now’. Sonne is taken aback, genuine shock on his face.’Really? Same.’ It’s all part of the flirtatious dance between them, but there’s an integrity lurking underneath – on the right night, with the right person, someone you met mere hours ago can feel like someone you were destined to find.
Victoria takes a seat at the instrument, and begins to play. It’s nothing like we or Sonne expect – she’s a musical master, playing a beautifully vibrant symphony. She loses herself completely in the music, fingers and body moving in poetic expression. His bravado drops as he watches and listens, a smile flitting across his face. Both of their walls come down and their relationship moves from casual charm to true connection.
Often, during a night of drinking and debauchery, there’s a moment where the mood turns. Someone’s had more than they can handle, a sharp word is spoken, merry mouths start spouting truths and tensions run high. Victoria’s long night takes a detour she never expected when, after saying goodbye to Sonne and brushing her teeth, ready for the working day ahead, he returns with Boxer and Blinker in a panic. Boxer owes a debt from his days in prison that requires four people, and Victoria agrees to help him pay it – little does she know, the debt can only be paid by pulling off a bank robbery.
Was it the connection she found with Sonne that drove Victoria to agree to help them, or a more primal search for an adrenaline rush that can so often put our lizard brain in the driver’s seat once we’ve had a few? Whatever carried her to that underground car park in Berlin, it’s surely fear that made her stay.
As the gang move into the next act of the evening, they literally perform a rehearsal of their crime so as to appease the man for whom they’re committing it, all taking a hit of drugs to boost their confidence and aggression. Victoria watches on as Sonne, Boxer and Blinker play out the kind of cliche armed robbery we only see in movies far more conceited than this one. The versions of themselves they chose to step into when they headed out that night have taken on a brand new identity, and a brand new face – one disguised with a black balaclava.
Later, after they’ve done the deed, and perhaps at the highest high of a night full of peaks and troughs, Victoria and the boys realise that they might just have gotten away with it, and excitedly celebrate their victory. We’re taken back to the nightclub where we found Victoria, but she is not alone this time. She has found friendship, romance, a sense of belonging. You can’t help but smile as the four of them move euphorically across the emptying dancefloor, Boxer and Blinker losing all inhibitions, and Sonne and Victoria finding their release in erratic, passionate kisses. It turns out, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being one of many, a single being in a sea of bodies brought together by strobe lights and a pounding beat.
Sadly, it doesn’t last very long. As they emerge from the club, blinking in the grey morning light of the Berlin dawn, their ecstasy soon turns to terror when they see the police around their abandoned car, and the script shifts to an intense shootout, each character trying desperately to escape with their life.
Once Victoria and Sonne are the last two standing, we see her pull on a new mask; a facet of her character that we haven’t seen before. The two break in to a young couple’s home so as to evade the police, and Sonne is at breaking point. As the apartment block goes into police lockdown, Victoria steps in and takes control. She decides to use the couple’s baby as the ultimate disguise to get out of the building, but retains enough of her non-criminal self to reassure the mother that her child would be safe. At this point, she is no longer a side character being used only as audience’s way in to the boys’ story: she exerts her power, and becomes the protagonist for real.
The end of the night is always almost uncomfortable enough to warrant never leaving the house, don’t you think? You’re standing outside in the cold or the rain, the warmth and comfort of the alcohol is wearing off, and for all the fun you’ve had, you’re dying to just get home to your bed.
For Victoria, the end of this particular night is probably the most sobering of her life. The relentless 140-minute-long take ends with her covered in blood before she walks off into the daylight, bag of money in hand. The bravado, the facade, the charm; they all fall away from her, much as we wipe and wash and strip away the layers we plastered on for the night once we get back to our own bathroom mirror. But rather than coming back to herself, she’s a brand new woman entirely.
The party is over, and Victoria ends it alone – just as she started it.