Berlin Syndrome

April 21, 2017
AAA Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 9.31.01 pm

Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome is a movie that vindicates the paranoid wisdom of one’s parents. “Don’t talk to strangers,” they tell us, conjuring up suspicions that the man at the bustop is probably an axe murderer. But if the humble suburbs are crawling with psychos the dangers of a foreign country are almost inconceivable. Better stay home.

For Clare, a naïve Aussie girl from Brisbane with taste for photography, it might have been better to go to Bali rather than Berlin. Nowadays the German capital is the most seductive city in Europe – edgy, relatively inexpensive, and full of energy. It may no longer possess the thrilling, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Cold War, but it remains a romantic place. For any young person with artistic aspirations it’s an obvious destination.

Teresa Palmer plays Clare as a bit of a dope. She sounds as if she’s never been anywhere but Brisbane, and the photos she’s taking of East German-style buildings are hardly more than clichés. She’s almost a type: the young artist filled with creative urges who has never taken the time to learn anything much about her subject.

We meet her as she exits the U-Bahn at Kottbusser Tor, loaded up with a monster backpack. She’s just come from the airport and is wide-eyed with wonder at actually being in Berlin. She makes her way to the nearest youth hostel, where she sits around aimlessly all night with a group of travellers.

The next day Clare savours the seedy ambience of Kreuzberg or Neukölln while clicking her camera at non-descript architecture and fending off messages from her mother. Her grasp of German seems to be limited to “Danke!” and “Tchüss!”, so when a handsome fellow named Andi (Max Riemelt) speaks to her in English she’s happy to tell him all about herself.

They spend the day together, and later that night Clare finds herself thinking obsessively about Andi. She retraces her steps until she tracks him down, sitting in a bookshop poring over the same erotic drawings by Gustav Klimt that she pored over a few days ago. Quelle coincidence!

This time it’s back to Andi’s flat in a desolate part of the city, for a night of passionate love-making. Clare retrieves her gear from the youth hostel and moves in with her new flame, feeling all dreamy and sexually charged. The problem arises the next morning when Andi leaves to go to his job as a high school English teacher, and late-rising Clare finds he’s accidentally locked her in.

It’s only when Andi returns that Clare finds he has no intention of letting her out. His logic is simple: ‘Why would she ever want to leave the apartment now that she’s found him?’

To remove any temptations Andi confiscates Clare’s sim card and other belongings. He’s made the flat into a fortress, with unbreakable glass in the windows and a reinforced metal door. And so begins Clare’s long ordeal as a prisoner, in which she watches Andi grow steadily more weird and potentially violent.

After a failed, painful attempt to escape she realises she has no choice other than to play along with his fantasies. This includes posing in sexy underwear, and being tied to the bed. If she resists he’ll only achieve his goals by force. Andi has his own photographic interests which involve snapping kinky polaroids of Clare to stick in an album.

While this is going on Andi leaves for work every day, interacting with his colleagues and the students. He also visits his old dad (Matthias Habich), a lecturer in German literature, who spent much of his life in the DDR. Gradually we piece together a crude psychological profile of Andi as a man who never forgave his mother for leaving the family, and developed a hatred of women that finds an outlet in his private power games. There’s also a suggestion that a childhood spent in the repressive environment of East Germany has done strange things to his personality.

The “syndrome” of the title refers to the so-called ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, whereby a captive learns to love his or her captor. Having not read Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel upon which the film is based, I can’t say whether this is true of the original story. In the movie Clare may be smitten with Andi at first but she rapidly ceases to regard him with anything but fear and trepidation.

Shortland moves the story along in a brisk manner but there is a disconnected feeling about the characters. As the latest in a long line of films about kidnapping and captivity – from The Collector (1965) to The Grissom Gang (1971), and most recently, Room (2015) – Berlin Syndrome is far less involving. It never quite captures the asphyxiating terror (and boredom) of being at someone else’s mercy, day and night.

Perhaps the greatest indictment of the narrative is that Andi comes across as a far more interesting character than Clare. The greatest proof of his deranged state of mind is his urge to keep this dull girl under lock and key, when he should have settled for a one-night stand and an empty promise to stay in touch.

Berlin Syndrome
Directed by Cate Shortland
Written by Shaun Grant & Cate Shortland, after a novel by Melanie Joosten
Starring Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading
Australia, rated MA15+, 116 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22nd April, 2017