After 2012’s acclaimed drama Lore, Australian director Cate Shortland returns to Germany to try her hand at genre filmmaking for the first time with captivity thriller Berlin Syndrome. The result is an exercise in nerve-shredding terror that largely avoids both the clichés and the pitfalls of this particular subgenre, choosing instead to explore the fascinating, ever-changing dynamic between its two lead characters.
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is an Australian tourist with a passion for photography who plans to backpack around Europe, starting in Berlin. She explores the city, getting shots of the GDR architecture and dipping in and out of second-hand shops, but she’s lonely. Enter charming local teacher Andi (Max Reimelt). The pair meet-cute in the street over a box of strawberries and spend the day together, wandering through the city and bonding over a shared love of art.
This eventually leads back to Andi’s apartment, which is located – alarm bells! – in the middle of an otherwise abandoned apartment complex in a run-down part of town. They share a steamy night together and this seems like the perfect holiday romance for Clare until the following morning when Andi has gone to work and left her locked in the apartment. What seems like an innocent mistake is soon revealed to be something far more sinister as Clare realises she’s trapped and that, most frightening of all, she doesn’t seem to be the first one.
There have been numerous horrors and thrillers centred around a woman held in captivity by a sick maniac, but Shortland’s film is a smarter affair than most. She focuses on what’s going on in the characters heads just as much as she does crafting genuinely tense set-pieces. Clare is very much the focus and we spend a lot of time alone with her in the apartment, watching as her spirit is slowly but surely worn down by her situation. At first she violently resists but after a couple of violent and unbearably tense escape attempts, Andi leaves her tied to a bed. Eventually she realises it’s better just to play along and eventually, chillingly, the two start to live like something that on the surface looks like a normal couple.
The film’s title is a clear nod to Stockholm syndrome, the psychological condition that sees captives begin to develop an attachment to their captor. However, Shortland never makes it entirely clear just how much Clare is settling in or is just humouring Andi in the hope that he will keep her alive long enough for her to escape. On the outside, we see glimpses of Andi’s life: he appears to be well-liked by his students and his fellow teachers make an effort, even if something about him is a little off. He also has a good relationship with his ailing father, which provides perhaps the biggest insight into his character but also adds an unnecessary distraction from an otherwise tightly constructed plot.
These glimpses at Andi’s life establish a familiar banality-of-evil bent but it’s effective in setting up the film’s exploration of abusive relationships. Andi is a typical abuser turned up to eleven: he can be charming and manipulative when he needs to be, presenting a normal façade to the outside world to conceal just how much of a monster he is at home. Crucially the film shows us Andi’s life but never asks us to sympathise with him, always remaining clear on how we should feel about him even if Clare’s feelings are muddied.
Central to the film is a terrific performance from Teresa Palmer, who is put through the ringer here. In a performance that genuinely deserves the adjective ‘brave’, she transitions from wide-eyed tourist to flinty survivor and is stripped down, tied up and beaten along the way. Palmer is an underrated actress with a string of solid performances in films that don’t deserve them; here she finally has material that’s worthy of her talents and she takes full advantage of it. Alongside her, Max Reimelt is compelling and charismatic throughout, flicking the switch between charming stranger and sinister captor with unsettling plausibility.
While the tempo might be too slow and considered for anyone looking for a quick fright or some extreme gore, Berlin Syndrome is nonetheless a gruelling experience. Shortland provides a unique perspective on a genre that often falls back on the male gaze, while touching on the real horrors of abusive relationships and ultimately the women who survive them.