Aussie traveller Clare (Teresa Palmer) meets German teacher Andi (Max Riemelt) in Berlin. After a one-night stand, Clare find she’s locked in his apartment. The next day, when Clare is once again trapped in there, it dawns on her she is being held hostage.
Australian director Cate Shortland’s third feature is a corker. After 2004’s Somersault (a teenage girl expresses her burgeoning sexuality) and 2012’s Lore (a teenage girl gets to grips with her parents’ Nazi past), Berlin Syndrome is another lyrical, compelling exploration of fluid, dark compulsions, this time centred on the power play between hostage and kidnapper in an escape-proofed apartment. In some hands, this could be a tacky horror pot-boiler. Yet Shortland and her team have elevated it into a complex battle of wills, full of compelling character dynamics, psychological nuance, great filmmaking and high-voltage tension.
A thoughtful chamber piece and great white knuckle thriller.
It starts innocently enough like a Linklater euro romance (‘Before Captivity’), only Shortland’s austere tone and mood music hinting something is awry. Clare (Palmer), an Aussie traveller looking for that big life experience, and Andi (Reimelt), a good-looking German teacher, meet cutely, sharing strawberries crossing the road. They discuss DDR architecture, wander through allotments trading personal histories and pore over Klimt art books before a late-night hook-up in his flat. During the heights of passion — Shortland knows how to create a sensual connection without ever feeling exploitative — Clare utters, “I don’t want this to end.” Sadly, her wish comes true as, the following morning, she is locked in the apartment with bolted windows, no SIM card and no means to contact the outside world.
Shortland and writer Shaun Grant, adapting Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel, milk the scenario for maximum tension but also psychological ambiguity. The title hints at the expectation of Stockholm syndrome — a feeling of love and trust from the hostage towards the captor — but the film doesn’t come down either way. Palmer’s impressive, dialled-back performance never really gives away how she is feeling — is she developing genuine feelings or playing along? — displaying a smart resourcefulness over pluck and chutzpah. Unlike the first half of Room, the film isn’t locked into its captive’s POV. We follow Andi at work, making banal chit-chat with colleagues, ogling student Franka (Emma Bading) and visiting his dad (Matthias Habich). Andi flits between being a too-good-to-be-true boyfriend (“Do you like pesto?” he asks Clare) and a weirdo abuser (he has a nail fetish), with Reimelt turning in a tightly wound performance. Kudos here to Melinda Doring’s production design that, unlike other confinement thrillers, doesn’t try to make Andi’s flat a ‘character’: rather than take the Seven approach, it is recognisable enough to be believable with key touches to accentuate the dread.
Shortland has always been the most tactile of filmmakers. She is great with details that add texture to her storytelling — few directors use close-ups of hands more effectively — but she is equally deft toggling between suspense and surprise. In addition to Bryony Marks’ effective, minimalist score, she also gets fantastic mileage out of Petula Clark anthem Downtown, firstly in Ina Martell’s German-language version, then in Palmer’s creepy rendition.
It’s a tad too long and the resolution might stretch credibility for some but, in the days when one indie hit can lead to a blockbuster gig (well, for men at least), Berlin Syndrome’s smart mastery of a tense tale should gift Shortland more mainstream opportunities. But, if not, she is doing fine just as she is.
A thoughtful chamber piece and great white knuckle thriller, Berlin Syndrome confirms Cate Shortland as a distinctive, cherishable talent in her most accessible movie to date.