Berlin Syndrome is a psychological horror / dark drama film directed by Cate Shortland, and written by Shaun Grant. It’s based upon the novel of the same name by Melanie Joosten. After being wowed by the trailer for the film last winter, I immediately put Berlin Syndrome on my list of movies to look out for.
The film had its world premiere at Sundance in January of this year, and then quietly dropped off my radar. It wasn’t until the film popped up on my Netflix feed recently that I knew it had even been released. And after having watched it, I’m surprised how little fanfare Berlin Syndrome received. Though a simple premise, it’s a surprisingly effective film.
Clare, played by Teresa Palmer, is a young twenty-something woman travelling alone. Though we don’t spend too much time with her in her pre-confined state, we see her hanging out in hostels and taking in the art and culture of Berlin through the lens of her camera. She lives her life carelessly and gives me wanderlust just watching her. (Though I know this trip doesn’t end well, it doesn’t stop my envy in the slightest)
Clare meets and falls for the handsome Andi (Max Riemelt), the allure of a handsome stranger in a book store too strong to pass by. The
y spend a romantic afternoon discussing strawberries and visiting a quaint garden. This fling is building to become a treasured memory to bring with Clare back home.
That is, until she sleeps with Andi. The morning after their passionate affair, she wakes up – he’s already left for work. And whoops! He accidentally locked Clare inside and didn’t leave a key. But then the red flags grow. His apartment is in an isolated building, without any other tenants. His front door has a dead bolt, barricading from frame to frame. The sim card from her phone has been removed. The windows are enforced.
What then ensues is a fascinating character-driven story of our two unique characters, captor and captive, entangled in a complicated and enduring relationship. The success of the movie hinges on them. We need to feel for Clare, to root for her. Andi needs to captivate us; we become sleuths dissecting his actions and words, trying to reveal his motivations to imprison another person.
Writing a believable and effective female victim is a hard task. I can’t speak for all females, but I know this one doesn’t want to see another damsel in distress. I want the women of our films today empowered, champions of their scenes and stories. We need more Maddie’s from Hush, Erin’s from You’re Next. But in telling an effective, gritty story – our characters can’t be super-heroes. They need to have real flaws and weaknesses.
Clare is a compelling character. Teresa Palmer is amazing in this film, portraying a careful balance of Clare’s volatile and reserved reactions. She is a confident character motivated and hindered by fear. We watch her ooze control of her sexuality and self when her and Andi’s relationship blossoms. But we slowly see that character change. Initially, she lashes out at her predicament, trying anything she can to escape. But even the confident wear. She begins to react cautiously around Andi as her confinement solidifies, tiptoeing around him as not to set of a potentially violent and unstable man. All the while, she silently plots an escape. Or does she?
As the effects of victim-hood creep up on Clare, and we see less and less of the confident creature we know her to be. It’s as if fear has settled in her bones like a dampness. She withers away behind a barricaded door.
A particular scene that really resonated with me is when Andi decides his best course of action is to chain Clare up during the day while he is at work. This is early on in the film, after Clare’s volatility resulted in smashed windows and an upended apartment. Very little is said in these scenes. He comes home with flowers and unlocks her. She is wearing a long-been-soiled nightgown, her wrists rubbed raw from the cuffs. She hobbles from the bed to the washroom for a shower, leaving Andi to change the sheets of her prison.
Andi on the other hand, is quietly creepy – and after he reveals himself the night after their fling, he remains altogether consistent. Consistently off. We watch him about his regular life, he spends his days as a teacher, his nights a sexual predator seeking love in all the wrong ways. Through clues and hints we learn more and more about his deviant, romantic past.
Though Berlin Syndrome may seem drawn out and a slow-paced for some, I enjoyed the journey of this film immensely. It only faltered for me a bit with the added mystery of Clare’s final plot to freedom. I wanted to stay in that apartment, unravelling these characters forever. But all kidnappings must come to an end, unfortunately. Despite a somewhat Hollywood ending, this film ranks high on my list on films of 2017.
Berlin Syndrome is currently available to stream on Netflix.