The Berlin Syndrome: Before Sunrise, but for psychos
Cate Shortland’s creepy, eerily beautiful third feature delivers a familiar story, but gets by on evil ambience
Teresa Palmer in The Berlin Syndrome
Film Title: The Berlin Syndrome
Director: Cate Shortland
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading
Running Time: 116 min
Cate Shortland, director of Lore and Somersault, attacks a familiar story in her creepy, eerily beautiful third feature. This is the one about the character who strives to stay sane after being imprisoned by an urban lunatic. The subject was handled dubiously in John Fowles’s novel The Collector and more sensitively in William Wyler’s 1965 adaptation. Lenny Abrahamson was more subtle still in Room. Shortland’s film sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
The Berlin Syndrome concerns Clare (Teresa Palmer), a young backpacker, who, while strolling through the titular city, happens upon an apparently charming teacher called Andi (Max Riemelt). The picture leads us slowly towards its appalling swivel. The couple stroll about interesting parts of the city. Eventually he leads her back to his basic apartment in an otherwise deserted building. The sex seems fine. The conversation carries few hints of danger. Nonetheless, the next morning Clare wakes up to find herself locked into the building. Her SIM card has been taken. She initially tries to convince herself that it’s all a mistake. But when Andi returns, he has taken on the guise of an unapproachable captor.
Shortland has already shown herself be a master of chilly atmosphere. Once again, she inveigles us into an awkward environment where every word is loaded with danger and ambiguity. Palmer, good in the recent Hacksaw Ridge and Lights Out, confirms her potential with an understated performance that keeps the terror largely buttoned down. The more she learns about the apartment’s history, the unhappier she gets. The sexual bargaining into which she is forced turns the stomach, as it should.
For all that, The Berlin Syndrome doesn’t find much new to do with this well-thumbed scenario. Germain McMicking’s widescreen photography captures the contrasting flavours of Berlin and, softly and cautiously, sucks us into the captive’s claustrophobia. But the relationships are familiar, the eventual resolution unsurprising and the dialogue no more than adequate.
It gets by on evil ambience. Just.