Straight Out of Stockholm Comes ‘Berlin Syndrome’
Coming off her acclaimed 2012 historical drama, Lore, director Cate Shortland makes her triumphant return to cinema at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. With her latest entry Berlin Syndrome, she dives into the psyche of an unexpected kidnapper and his unhealthy relationship with his captive.
Berlin Syndrome is based off the 2011 Melanie Joosten novel of the same name. An Australian photojournalist named Clare (Teresa Palmer) arrives on the scene in Berlin to spend her holiday. During a stroll, she crosses paths with a stranger named Andi (Max Riemelt). She ends up having a one-night stand with him. Thinking nothing of it, she wakes up the following morning to find herself in his apartment alone. For most of the day, he’s missing in action and the door’s locked. She soon realizes that Andi’s not letting her get away too easily.
Berlin Syndrome’s clearly not afraid to take the subject of female captivity by stripping away many of the mainstream tropes. From the get-go, there’s no doubt that Shortland is taking her audience on a slow burn. For those who have watched her previous films should come to expect this to follow suit. We see Clare and Andi warming up to each other almost immediately and begin to ponder if this holiday romance is a bit too perfect. Even the first few scenes at Andi’s apartment, we don’t have that inkling to let our guard down. It’s not until Clare wakes up the following morning and the door’s locked that there’s something just not right.
Shortland keeps the film’s situations reeled in, never overplaying her hand with violent getaways. There is one instance where one of the characters receives a bloodied hand, but actual violence on-screen is few and far between. Instead, Clare and Andi engage in a mental chess match. Basically, Clare has to outwit her captor, even if it sometimes requires reverse psychology. The title alone blatantly suggests Stockholm Syndrome comes into play at one point or another. Even if the particular scenarios Andi places her in are without a doubt traumatic. What starts as sensualization quickly transforms into objectification and obsession.
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Teresa Palmer single-handedly delivers the performance of her career here. She bounces back and forth between falsely accepting the situation and reaching a certain level of desperation to escape from Andi. Riemelt is a fine foil for Palmer’s Clare, switching between charming and obsessive. Fortunately with Joosten’s novel as source material and Shaun Grant’s nail-biter of a screenplay, we’re able to examine both sides of the equation.
Berlin Syndrome has its fair share of intense, gripping scenes when Andi and Clare are mentally digging at each other. That’s when Shortland goes all-in on its stunning and claustrophobic atmosphere. When they’re separated, it’s not quite as engaging. Clare’s plays rinse and repeat in attempting to escape. Andi, however, is off teaching impressionable young girls.
While walls and claustrophobia are key elements to Berlin Syndrome, there’s never that willingness to reach out with some of the themes addressed in Joosten’s novelization. The parallels to the Berlin Wall are severely underplayed. And while that doesn’t detract from two hours of psychological terror, the concept would have completed a more compelling narrative.
Berlin Syndrome plays as a smart, psychological thriller that toys with the idea of physical abuse, but rather dishes more of a mental scarring for both its captor and captive.