After delivering an outstanding feature film debut in 2006 with Somersault, Australian director Cate Shortland opted against following in the footsteps of her contemporaries and heading to Hollywood, instead turning to Europe in search of opportunities. In 2012 she delivered Lore, the well received WW2-set drama in which a teenage girl sets out to save herself and her siblings from the advancing Allied armies, and now, after another lengthy break between projects, Shortland returns with her second German-Australian co-production. Starring Aussie actress Teresa Palmer, whose career also kicked off in 2006 when she made a stunning debut in 2:37 after being cast on the spot with no audition and no previous acting experience, Berlin Syndrome begins as a holiday romance that quickly descends into a tense, claustrophobic thriller in which Clare (Palmer), a naïve tourist from Brisbane, finds herself at the mercy of psychologically scarred high school teacher Andi (Max Reimelt). Adapted from a book by Melanie Joosten and with a title that is obviously a play on Stockholm Syndrome, the term coined for a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors, there is nothing new in the narrative premise of young woman being held against her will – we have seen Room and 19 Cloverfield Lane cover similar territory in recent months and you can even add Don’t Breathe to such a list – so this needs to be special to stand out from this crowd.
The key difference between Berlin Syndrome and these other films is that Clare willingly accompanies her captor to the apartment in which she will subsequently be detained for an extended period, a passionate one-night stand becoming a nightmare of humiliation and degradation. It is when wandering the streets of Berlin that budding photographer Clare meets Andi who, it must be said, doesn’t present as particularly charming. However, intoxicated by the adventure of her first overseas experience, Clare falls under his spell and abandons her hostel accommodations to accompany Andi to his apartment within an otherwise abandoned building. The morning after a night of steamy sex, Clare awakens to find that Andi has departed and left her locked inside the apartment with her mobile phone having been stripped of its SIM card. From this point, she finds herself at the mercy (or lack thereof) of her captor, who carries on with his daily routines – work, visiting his father – and whose demeanour fluctuates between affable homeliness (Do you like pesto?) to violent perversion.
Shortland switches between Clare’s increasingly perverse captivity and Andi’s reasonably normal exterior life but never makes any attempt to make Andi sympathetic, offering very little by way of an explanation for his behaviour, other than resentment at his mother having abandoned the family. Shortland does a good job of maintaining tension throughout, but the apartment is filled with potential weapons that Clare could use to incapacitate Andi and make her escape, so you need to be prepared to overlook such gaps in logic to accept what transpires, which is easy enough to do with a low-key, yet powerful, performance from Palmer, who also starred recently in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Starting out soft-spoken and introverted, Clare’s inhibitions disappear out of necessity as she realises that even if she does scream, there is nobody around to hear her. Palmer handles this transformation very well, taking her character into places that some actresses would consider as being too vulnerable.
The story ultimately plays out as a retort to the idea of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, because Clare never develops any attachment with her oppressor. Yes, she is compliant in the interests of self-preservation, but she never elicits any empathy for her captor. The production design delivers an effectively foreboding atmosphere but neither both Palmer nor Reimelt allow the confines of the space to diminish the scope of their performances. Perhaps my biggest bugbear with the film is that it is never really clear what Shortland is trying to say. If she is making an effort to examine the minds of captive and captor, she has failed to present enough information about either of them for the audience to really understand what makes them tick. Unsettling and confronting at times, albeit not as graphic as it might have been in other hands, Berlin Syndrome is a tense thriller that marks a welcome return from one of Australia’s best filmmakers.