Director: Cate Shortland
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt
Words: Carly Stevenson
Cate Shortland’s third feature follows Australian backpacker Clare as she photographs DDR architecture on a solo trip to Germany.
Shortly after arriving in Berlin, she meets charismatic teacher Andi, who happens to live alone in an abandoned apartment block. Alarm bells ring, but Clare doesn’t hear them because Andi seems far too cute, calm and cultured to be a threat.
The plot escalates when he takes her post-coital “I wish I didn’t have to leave” comment literally and locks her in. By the time she realises that the apartment is escape-proof, it is too late; her SIM card is missing and she finds creepy Polaroids of her asleep. The photographer becomes the (non-consenting) subject.
(Note: this is by no means the only instance of clever foreshadowing in the first half of the film alone).
Berlin Syndrome knowingly conforms to the conventions of female captivity narratives even as it subtly undermines them.
In interviews, Shortland has discussed the influence of fairytales on Berlin Syndrome – particularly how they ‘eroticise a very immobilised, trapped heroine’ (Nick Hasted, The Independent, 8 June 2017).
The relationship between Andi and Clare certainly takes on this quality as the film navigates difficult psychological terrain. Clare’s continued sexual attraction to Andi during her imprisonment is ambiguous: is she simply playing along to appease her captor, or is their relationship more complex?
Though the film shies away from overt horror, the suggestion of potential nastiness lurks in the corner of every shot. Rather than focusing on the spectacle of trauma, Shortland places female strength at the centre of her storytelling.
Clare’s transformation from naive tourist to survivalist elevates the film from its generic conventions and affords Teresa Palmer an opportunity to demonstrate her hitherto unacknowledged acting credentials. Like the film’s protagonist, the audience are held captive by her nuanced performance.
In terms of tone and pace, Berlin Syndrome has more in common with Personal Shopper than it does with most abduction thrillers, not least of all because Teresa Palmer and Kristen Stewart look as if they could be related.