A brutal, yet subtle abduction thriller, Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome is a stunning effort from the Australian filmmaker that deftly explores the idea of Stockholm syndrome in a very unexpected, thoughtful, and intimate way.
Co-starring Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies, Lights Out) and Max Riemelt (Sense8), Berlin Syndrome follows Clare (Palmer), an Australian photographer who has just arrived in Germany after coming to a crossroads in her life and realizing that she wants to experience the world at large through the lens of her camera. While Clare is quite shy and sometimes awkward around others, she catches the eye of Andi (Riemelt), a local teacher who takes an immediate liking to her, and they end up sharing a night of passion. But the next morning, Clare finds herself unable to leave Andi’s apartment (which of course happens to be located in a remote part of Berlin that most folks have moved out of) after being locked in when he leaves for work.
When he returns, things seem normal, as he passes off the incident as “accidental,” but the very next day, Clare begins to suspect her new suitor has far more sinister intentions than she ever could have imagined, and she realizes that she has no way to contact the outside world and no hope to escape her new prison or captor. Over time, we see the turmoil and internal struggles of Clare as she tries to outthink Andi and find a way to escape her living nightmare.
To its credit, Berlin Syndrome truly feels unlike any other abduction movie I’ve seen in quite some time, and I applaud Shortland and her producers for finding such interesting source material to base their film upon (Melanie Joosten penned the novel of the same name). Usually, these types of films start off with a huge moment of violence, but Berlin Syndrome is all about creating a quiet and eerie sense of unease once Clare realizes the reality of what is happening around her. The approach is genuinely unnerving, as we watch Clare go through a range of emotions from confusion to anger to sadness to utter desperation.
The longer Clare stays under Andi’s watch, the more their characters devolve into almost an animalistic relationship where they provoke one another and yet still care about each other, and I enjoy that this isn’t simply just another tale of good versus bad; their relationship in Berlin Syndrome is uniquely complicated, and while I would never justify the act of kidnapping another human being (I’m not a monster, after all), you can see just why Clare sometimes finds herself questioning Andi’s real motivations, and even sympathizing with him at times.
As Andi, Riemalt, gives a wonderfully complicated performance in Berlin Syndrome. Half the movie you hate his guts, and the other half you almost feel bad for him because he’s just so afraid of losing someone he genuinely cares about that he thinks he must go to this kind of an extreme to preserve the relationship. As viewers, we can judge his actions, but as the filmmaker, Shortland never does, and that’s important. Palmer, who has yet to not leave me impressed with her work, once again delivers an incredibly nuanced performance in Berlin Syndrome that pushes the actress into some very extreme situations, all of which she completely owns again and again. There’s a ferocity to Clare as she continues to transform the longer she’s locked away, and Palmer is downright hypnotizing with her unhinged portrayal of a young woman on the brink of losing her mind. It’s Palmer’s best work to date, by far.
A cinematic metaphor for how many folks out there can feel trapped in their relationships—and not just in the case of physical or emotional abuse, as anyone who has ever been involved with someone they just don’t feel like they can “escape” will find aspects of the film wholly relatable—Berlin Syndrome is an intriguing and unforgettable character study that isn’t afraid to dig into the damaging aspects of human relationships, delivering some incredibly tense moments in a finale that had me literally grinding my teeth. The film could probably stand to lose about 20 minutes overall (there is a good chunk of the movie that spins its wheels without very much story progression), but Clare’s harrowing journey is still damn compelling.
Movie Score: 4/5