Film: “Berlin Syndrome”; Director: Cate Shortland; Cast: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthais Habich, Emma Bading, Elmira Bahrami and Christoph Franken; Rating: ***
A survivor’s tale, Berlin Syndrome is a tautly made home-entrapment thriller based on the novel by Melanie Joosten. It is quite similar to films like “The Collector”, “Boxing Helena” and “Room”.
Here, Clare is an Australian photographer who has just come to Berlin on a backpacking trip through Europe. Travelling solo to experience life, she captures severe, Communist-era East German architecture.
An accidental encounter on the street with a handsome German teacher Andi leads to a friendship after he shares his box of strawberries.
A day after their first encounter, they are back at his place — a dilapidated apartment with peeling walls and slasher-flick lighting where he seems to be the sole resident.
They share their histories as foreplay to an evening of steamy passion. The next morning, as she gets up late, she finds that he is off to work and herself locked in his apartment.
Whether by accident or on purpose isn’t clear at first, but she quickly learns that he is a wolf in a sheep’s clothing who has plans to keep her in his isolated and insulated apartment indefinitely as his sex slave.
Teresa Palmer truly shines as the shy, soft spoken Clare. She does a fantastic job as the type of traveller who stays in Youth Hostels and trusts strangers too easily. Her expressive eyes and stunning range of reactions, at times silences, filled with rage or eerie seduction, sell her waif-like character.
Her captor Andi, played by Max Riemelt, is a one-dimensional character and hardly inspires much sympathy. With his mellow, kind-eye and scruffy good looks, Riemelt never turns into a bile-spewing villain but his coldness elevates the anxiety of the film. We know a lot about the character through his work and his relationship with his father and he executes his part effectively.
The plot, with an excess of setups and payoffs, mostly works. Its measured pace, builds up the tension. The film jolts you at a few junctures, especially when Clare attempts to escape the first time. What is assuring is how incredibly tense the film stays throughout its two hour run-time.
Working off a screenplay by Shaunn Grant, director Cate Shortland creates an atmosphere that’s dreamlike gloomy in an innocent setup.
You feel the claustrophobia of the surroundings and the nerve-wrecking part is watching Clare lose her rationality, oscillating between the classic Stockholm syndrome and her desperate attempts to escape her dire situation.
The only issue in the film is that the third act feels so rushed, leaving too many logical steps unanswered. Also, the subplot about Andi’s relationship with his sick and withholding father goes nowhere interesting and it certainly doesn’t explain how he turned into a monster.
Overall, the film is stylishly mounted as the creepiness of the situation gets under your skin.