BERLIN SYNDROME. Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading. Directed by Cate Shortland. 116 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes, violence and sex scenes).
‘Berlin Syndrome’ is a first-rate psychological thriller made with total conviction. The narrative explores some black-as-night material, but its small cast is always game and the craft on display is uniformly impressive.
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a young Brisbane woman in search of ‘life experience’. As many young Aussies do, she travels to Europe, where we catch up with her in Berlin. Carting her hulking rucksack around on public transport and sleeping in hostel dormitories, she’s immersed in the solo traveller’s lifestyle.
One day, she bumps into a charming young German man, Andi (Max Riemelt), and they hit it off. Their chemistry is undeniable, but Clare is due to travel to Dresden the next day. Intrigued, she impulsively decides to postpone her travel and returns the next day to the bookshop where they met. This time, there are no wistful glances and unfulfilled desires – they spend a passionate night at Andi’s sparse but comfortable apartment, tucked away in a derelict block in the shadow of the Fernsehturm.
Next morning, Andi heads off to work and, after gathering her belongings, Clare too makes to leave. She finds that she has been locked in; an innocent mistake. She whiles away the hours until he returns and they spend another evening together. The next day, she presses him to leave a key and he does so. When the key doesn’t shift the deadbolt across the front door, and Clare realises that the windows are made from reinforced plexiglass, terror sets in and the hopelessness of her situation becomes clear. Teresa Palmer is terrific – her fidgety, mousy traveller becomes animalistic when trapped, and her fight to survive is almost unbearably gripping.
The premise, adapted by Shaun Grant from Melanie Joosten’s novel of the same name, is extremely powerful in its simplicity. Director Cate Shortland doesn’t embellish or exploit Clare’s plight nor the psychology of her antagonist. Clare is locked in a secluded apartment with no clear escape. Lying in bed together, Clare told Andi that she wished she could stay in that moment forever, and he appears to believe that his actions are merely facilitating her unintentional, spur-of-the-moment wish. Clare’s fear and despair are given space to breathe and develop (the benefit of a long runtime despite such a contained story), and Shortland takes time to develop Andi as well, though not so much humanising him as exploring him and what he truly is.
During their first day together, as Andi is taking Clare through some community gardens, she picks up and dons a discarded wolf mask for a playful joke. Looking back, it’s an elegant foreshadowing of the wolf hiding in plain sight in front of her. As the film progresses past the initial shock of Clare’s plight, it moves into even darker, more troubling territory as it explores the relationship that the pair develop when Clare begins to accept the improbability of her escape (giving the film its title – Stockholm Syndrome-lite, if you will). Shortland spends time following Andi’s daily routine, from the English lessons that he teaches at a sports high school to his regular visits to see his Dad (Matthias Habich), a literature professor. There are also a couple of important run ins with one of his students, Franka (Emma Bading) Delving into the life and habits of such a figure is absorbing, as we wait for signs of his delinquency to show themselves in his day-to-day interactions. Actor Max Riemelt is excellent, projecting a calm surface that occasionally betrays the ripples of his cruel home life; he’s charming but threatening, the perfect wolf in handsome Berliner’s clothing.
The film is exquisitely shot (Clare’s penchant for photography is reflected in the clean, lingering compositions) and uses its sound design and music to nerve shredding effect.
It’s not uncommon for first-time Australian directors to make a genre film as a sort of calling card to Hollywood, a statement of intent and an audition for bigger projects. For instance, James Wan of ‘Saw’ fame is currently shooting DC’s ‘Aquaman’, while the Spierig Brothers are following 2003’s ‘Undead’ with franchise film ‘Saw: Legacy’ this year. It’s unusual then, that Shortland has only now come to the genre game. However, her experience and exceptional eye for staging and casting elevate this above and beyond its genre trappings, to easily one of the best Australian films this year.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 20.