Berlin Syndrome

Review by Caitlin Quinlan @csaquinlan

Directed by

Cate Shortland

Starring

Lucie Aron Max Riemelt Teresa Palmer

Anticipation.

Cate Shortland thrives when exploring the subtleties of stories. Will a thriller ruin that?

Enjoyment.

Edge-of-your-seat stuff for the majority of the film.

In Retrospect.

An intelligent tale with unusual undertones and a necessary fear factor.

A holiday fling turns into a waking nightmare in Cate Shortland’s tense romantic thriller.

When it comes to screen depictions of predatory men, Australian director Cate Shortland has you covered. Somersault from 2004 is about an Aussie teen runaway discovering her sexuality, and 2012’s Lore, set during the fall of the Third Reich sees the eldest daughter of an SS officer protect her siblings on a journey across Germany. Both films share distinct themes with her latest, Berlin Syndrome. Independent yet troubled female lead? Check. Dangerous experiences with creepy guys? Double check.

Adapted from the 2011 novel by Melanie Joosten, the film seems a little heavy handed for Shortland’s softer, more poised filmmaking style, but she manages to deliver a layered and considered story amid all the terror. Teresa Palmer plays Clare, a young backpacker who has barely spent 48 hours in Berlin before she meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a high school English teacher.

Their night of passion becomes the one night stand from hell as her suddenly obsessive and violent lover holds her hostage in his apartment. The abandoned building appears to have no escape, which Clare discovers in a number of gripping attempts to reach safety. Palmer and Riemelt deliver impressive performances – their initial chemistry is what makes the eventual dread so unnerving, and the director expertly weaves romance and horror together to delve into a more intricate thriller narrative.

Scenes are loaded with indicators of threat early on, particularly during Clare and Andi’s first flirtatious conversations. Walking through a quiet, suburban neighbourhood, Clare is scared by the loud and abrupt barking of a dog before finding a plastic wolf mask on the ground. She playfully laughs o both symbolic occurrences. She then corrects Andi’s English when he tells her he likes to “complicate life”, mistaking the verb for “contemplate”. Alarm bells are ringing loud and clear. The moments aren’t as subtle as they could be, and both Somersault and Lore are more delicately nuanced works that offer a better showcase of Shortland’s unique skills.

It’s important for Berlin Syndrome, however, that it clearly merges a sense of lust and fear in the same frame. This makes Clare’s occasional allegiance to her captor more understandable, despite seeming incomprehensible from a distance. Extreme close-ups of bruised skin and dirty fingernails transmit an eerie sense of texture and tactility, binding us tightly to the minute details of the protagonist’s experience. We are close to Clare in instances of both violence and intimacy – they draw us into her internal conflict. Moody tension gradually develops into unsettling fear.

Occasionally the film feels a little overblown, detracting from the suspense at the wrong moments, but it is mostly a well-crafted and intense. The couple are complicated; Andi is by no means exonerated, but smaller details, such as his relationship with his father, build up the psychological struggles that dominate the film (and are also suggested in its title). Stockholm or Berlin, Shortland crafts her characters and finds space in the muddling of seduction and terror. She examines the intensity of human interactions and how the fine line between our joy and deep insecurity can spiral out of control.

Published 6 Jun 2017

Tags: Cate Shortland

Anticipation.

Cate Shortland thrives when exploring the subtleties of stories. Will a thriller ruin that?

Enjoyment.

Edge-of-your-seat stuff for the majority of the film.

In Retrospect.

An intelligent tale with unusual undertones and a necessary fear factor.

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