ENTERTAINMENT ONE (2017)
Director: Cate Shortland
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading
“What would be the worst thing I could do to you…?
That quote probably won’t make the cover of any greetings cards, but to our captor, it’s almost a romantic conversational quip.
Based on the novel by Melanie Joosten, Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome is a psychological thriller (it isn’t quite full-on horror) that follows Australian backpacker Clare (Palmer) as she explores Berlin and meets hunky local Andi (Riemelt). He seems like a nice chap, offering her strawberries and discussing her interest in GDR architecture as they walk the streets. Eventually, they go back to his apartment and indulge in some efficient German love-making. In her comedown, Clare sighs that she wishes she never had to leave. Foolish.
Waking the next morning as Andi leaves for his job (he is an English and PE teacher), Clare finds that she has been locked in, accidentally she assumes, and thinks nothing of it as they indulge in more efficient German love-making that night. The next day, everything changes. The key she has been left is useless and the windows are ultra-reinforced. She’s trapped in the apartment. Her SIM card has been removed. Andi has written “mine” on her skin. There’s no way out. When Andi returns, he acts as if nothing is wrong – confusing and infuriating Clare, but her attack is met with resistance and she is tied to the bed as all hope fades. Andi, meanwhile, continues his life – working at the school, visiting his father, shopping for his new ‘girlfriend’, it’s clear he has no intention of letting Clare leave, as it’s revealed this is not the first time he’s had a tourist ‘girlfriend’.
Berlin Syndrome is a slow-burning, grubby looking movie. The austere surroundings add to the gloom that surrounds the proceedings and it’s a generally downbeat movie. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie though, far from it. Berlin Syndrome is actually a very decent movie. Avoiding the pitfalls that it could easily have fallen into, the movie retains a mysterious air to it, creating an atmosphere and using violence sparingly rather than plummeting into torture porn. The torture here is psychological – Clare is tied to a bed with no escape, she’s locked in the apartment with no means of entertainment and she’s forced into sexual situations for Andi’s Polaroid pleasure, to raise a few examples. Teresa Palmer delivers a riveting performance, silently portraying her shifting emotional and mental states without ever coming across as false – there’s an edgy restraint to her here and her seemingly ambiguous feelings are displayed very well. It’s a very raw, naked performance (no pun…). Similarly with Max Riemelt, who is also extremely controlled in his role, he’s almost likable such is his calm, gentle way (for the majority of the time at least). His cold emotions give off strong sociopath vibes, and his damning opinion of his mother (she defected to West Germany years before) is an indication of his desire for his repressed East German childhood to still be prevalent. Two astonishing lead performances.
The narrative quickly introduces the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, and Andi’s strong ties with it – with a focus on the notion of feeling trapped or enclosed and being under constant surveillance, plus the feelings of oppression – everything that Clare has to face throughout the movie. Riffing on the idea of Stockholm Syndrome, Clare seemingly falls into line and begins to even appreciate Andi as the silent torment thunders on. It’s a chilling situation and it’s articulated very well here.
It stands to mention that the movie could have been slightly shorter (yes, good movies can also stand to be shaved slightly) though there was never a feeling of it dragging on. It adopts the very European approach of long, drawn out scenes of silence and smaller scenes setting up character exposition which works just fine, but could be a turn-off for some. Whilst Berlin Syndrome is a tough watch at times, it does become predictable in its conclusion, the writers seemingly taking an easier route to an ending – however, the movie’s conclusion is more satisfying than the novels, it’s more exciting and more in line with the thriller aspect of the story.
Overall, this is a very decent movie that could have gone one of two ways. It could have fallen into a cliché of torture porn and visceral physical pain, instead, it opts for the slow, emotional approach which is far more successful in this instance. It’s not a fun movie, but with two strong lead performances snatching every inch of feeling they can grasp, Berlin Syndrome is very much a good movie.
September 12th 2017