Berlin Syndrome (2017)

Based on Melbourne author Melanie Joosten’s debut novel of the same name, Berlin Syndrome is an intimate and evocative psycho-sexual thriller, a dark love story, so to speak, one that explores the psychology of captivity, along with the dangers of both obsession and human isolation. Adapted for the screen by Shaun Grant, Jasper Jones (2017), the story follows Clare (Teresa Palmer), who hails from Brisbane, Australia, a twenty-something female photojournalist on a planned sabbatical from work, the young traveler using her time abroad, holidaying in Germany, to photograph the spectacular Soviet–designed architecture, this in the hope of, some day, publishing her very own photo-journal. Arriving in Berlin, the country’s capital, Clare — who happens to be drifting alone — soon encounters a charismatic German man named Andi (Max Riemelt), who works as an English and Sport teacher at a near-by high school, the duo hitting it off almost instantly. With their instinctive connection and natural magnetism, the pair gets swept up in a night of unbridled passion, their wild escapade finishing up in Andi’s high-rise apartment, located in the uninhabited part of former East Berlin.

‘… did I leave the stove on?’

However, when Clare wakes the very next morning, she discovers that the front door has been locked — well, more so bolted shut — and the windows reinforced with Perspex. Moreover, our distraught protagonist quickly realizes that the building is also abandoned, the lonesome backpacker now a prisoner inside of a highly fortified home. Could this be a simple mistake, a misplacement of the spare house key? Perhaps? But highly unlikely. When Andi arrives home later that evening, Clare pleads to be set free, although Andi, as it turns out, has no real intention of letting her go, the couple’s complex relationship taking a sinister turn, Clare coming to the frightening realization that she may be forced to live out her days in confinement, trapped inside of a relationship (quite literally) that she may never be able to escape.

With a high concept premise and a fairly contained plotline, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, Somersault (2004), captures the eerie tone and fine-tuned nuances of the source material, the picture essentially a cold and twisted character study, as opposed to your typical genre fair — there’s little in the way of jump scares and even less gore. Taking cues from Joosten’s 2011 novella, Shaun Grant’s screenplay is clearly more committed to character, his script surveying loneliness (particularly in travel) along with the hang-ups of solitude — as one can feel ‘all alone’ when in a foreign city, surrounded by strangers, or when imprisoned behind four walls — the entire picture possessing a claustrophobic sort of atmosphere. Sure, proceedings do eventually take a turn, assuming the shape of a cat-and-mouse type game, but the focus stays squarely on Clare and Andi, and understanding what makes them both tick.

Once upon a time , I feel in love with the … wrong person!

Also admirable is director Shortland and writer Grant’s ability to convincingly dramatize the breakdown of an intoxicating, intensely passionate relationship, where one party member is desperate to escape and the other tragically clinging onto the idea of a perfect union, even if it means oppressing and violating their ‘significant other’ to obtain it. With that said, Berlin Syndrome does come off as a smidgen ‘been-there, done-that,’ this captive vs. captor scenario explored countless times before — perhaps never as arty, though. In parts the film can also feel a dab drawn out, but thankfully director Shortland keeps the tension rising, this escalating nerviness drawing us deeper and deeper into Clare’s grim and hapless plight, viewers left fearing for her ultimate fate.

Nicely photographed by cinematographer Germain McMicking, Holding the Man (2015), patrons are treated to a handful of powerfully haunting images, Berlin Syndrome retaining a documentary-like aesthetic throughout. Furthermore, these vistas compliment the taut, nerve-shredding storyline, with filmmakers keeping the imagery strong yet subtle, never spoon-feeding the audience or taking them for granted — for instance, the dropping of leaves and drifting of snowflakes indicates the passing of time (the narrative taking place over about nine or so months). What’s more, it’s refreshing to see a home-grown flick that features no Aussie iconography — no kangaroos or koalas in sight here, no siree, and no sweeping shots of the Sydney Opera House either — this omission giving Berlin Syndrome a real chance to stand out on a global stage. It’s bizarre to think that parts of the picture were actually filmed in my hometown of Melbourne, with much of the Dockland Studios re-shaped in order to mirror The Fatherland, Germany, Berlin Syndrome possibly the least ‘Australian’ film to come out of the country in years.

One captive. One captivating performance.

With the movie more or less resting on the weight of its performances, leads Teresa Palmer, Lights Out (2016), and Max Riemelt, Free Fall (2013), deliver in spades, the twosome exuding palpable chemistry and bleeding together quite nicely. Adelaide-born sweetheart Palmer infuses Clare with naïveté, slight intuition and a fierce sense of discovery, she’s a girl who’s not afraid to open herself up to new possibilities, so much so that when Clare does become a victim of circumstance, tormented and subjugated by her assailant, she never allows herself to fully become the prey — it’s safe to assume, though, that Clare learns the harsh realities of the big bad world the hard way. Likewise, rising German star Max Riemelt is excellent as Andi, the 33-year-old heartthrob painting a moderately intricate portrait of deeply flawed man, this antagonist not your archetypal ‘movie monster.’ Granted, Andi isn’t as well developed as he could have been — some of his motivations remain a tad sketchy — but the brief encounters and social interactions he does have with his father and work colleagues (most of which are awkward) give us a glimpse into the mind-frame of the deranged and unhealthy individual, one trying desperately hard to rationalizes his violence and acts of aggression.

Not your stereotypical horror/ torture-porn show, Berlin Syndrome is a rather effective art-house chiller, one that’s surprisingly low on exploitation; with that said, however, the film may be a little too confrontational or artsy for some, chiefly those after mainstream jolts and thrills. If anything, Cate Shortland’s cautionary tale teaches us to never travel alone.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Berlin Syndrome is released through eOne Films Australia