Review: Berlin Syndrome

A staggering misfire, Shortland throttles the tension and nuance right out of this ungainly psychological thriller. Tediously mean.

There’s a perversity at the heart of Cate Shortland’s astoundingly bad psychological thriller Berlin Syndrome, but it’s not exactly what you’d think. Well, it’s that too, but we’ll get there.

Adapted from the Melanie Joosten novel by Snowtown and Jasper Jones screenwriter Shaun Grant, with Shortland also contributing, it stars Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge, Warm Bodies) as an Australian photographer wandering wistfully alone in the German capital.

Unlike Sommersault and Lore, both of which tackled conflicted morality viewed through the emotional responses of their female protagonists, Berlin Syndrome, though it clearly shares the same ambitions, allows almost no room for the interior life of Palmer’s Clare, sketched as she is as thin as paper.

Following a brief moment of camaraderie in a hostel, Clare, snapping street life as she goes, encounters a schoolteacher named Andi (Sense8’s Max Riemelt) while waiting at traffic lights. From the outset, Shortland fails to convince why, exactly, Clare would follow him. Leaving aside the complete absence of chemistry between Palmer and Riemelt, as meet-cutes go, Andi’s pick-up line about liking strawberries, delivered with rictus grin, is frankly bizarre and would be difficult for anyone to pull off.

Their subsequent perambulation through a city garden, complete with dreadful found animal mask moment, cinematographer Germain McMicking over-indulges Shortland’s hipster Malick tendencies. In a thoroughly forced second encounter after a strangely chaste parting the night before that hints at an emotional wound never expanded on here, Clare seeks Andi out. Finding him in a bookshop, they discuss Klimt (complete with heavy-handed plot foreshadowing) but this second pass does very little to convince of their supposed mutual attraction.

If Andi’s oddly cold pursuit wasn’t enough to set off alarm bells, then the abandoned apartment block strewn with graffiti that he leads her back to after dark should trouble any sober and sane person into thinking entering this desolate place alone with might be a BAD IDEA.

Shortland is perhaps asking us to question Clare’s desire for survival, and to Palmer’s credit there is a melancholy light captured in her eyes suggesting a person unmoored, but the film allows us so little insight into her character, her life up until now and what has brought her here that it’s hard to be sure. It also fails to establish burning desire as an overriding motive.

A sidenote on this setting: while there are certainly swathes of Berlin still left all-but deserted, I’m not so sure, from personal memory, there are any more or less at the foot of the Fernsehturm television tower, but I may be wrong on this point.

A mechanical sex scene between them does deliver one genius line when, as Andi notices Clare is trying to cover up her apparent pleasure, he assures her, “no one can hear you.” With echoes of the Alien tagline, it elicits one of the film’s precious few shivers.

Indeed, Clare has wandered into a fortress with a vault-like bar on the door and soundproof glass just beyond the breakable windows. When she wakes in the morning, the door is locked from the outside, sealing her in Melinda Doring’s wonderfully designed apartment that serves as both prison and a bitter simulacrum of happily partnered life.

As Andi returns from school ‘honey, I’m home’-style with flowers, and homemade cooking, creeping terror sets in. Berlin Syndrome’s brief success as domestic chiller sputters out shortly thereafter. There’s certainly power in Clare’s first desperate and bloody attempt to escape, but this promising tension is then drawn out inexorably over a tedious two-hour stretch only lightly grappling with the nature of male violence against women, physically and psychologically.

What is most confounding about Shortland’s decision-making here is that Clare is such a passive presence for the majority of the film. Quite apart from the sordid nature of her imprisonment, which feels a hell of a lot like the seedy male gaze of B-movie torture porn and lacks the emotional complexity of similar scenes in Snowtown, the script allows very little room for her to develop, barring a well-worked connection to a ghostly predecessor.

It never truly explores the suggestion, hinted at via the title’s similarity to Stockholm syndrome, that her initial fury and fear may cross into somewhere uncomfortably close to desire, either as a means to survive or something more disturbed. While Clare does, at first, play the game, Shortland’s direction never truly convinces that her feelings for Andi are that muddied.

As he is free to come and go, we are privy to the outside world through Andi, but he steadfastly remains a thinly villainous cypher. A chilly relationship with his father feels rote. An overtly misogynistic encounter with a female co-worker labours the point we’re already quite clear on and his creepy voyeurism of a young student similarly feels a like a lot of clunky grinding plot mechanics.

The extended incarceration becomes endurance for the viewer as much as it is for Clare, though through boredom, rather than horror. Berlin Syndrome is a tediously predictable slog that has so very little to say about what should be a frightening encounter.

While there are momentary glimpses of a much better, more nuanced film, like a mournful Christmas momentarily lit up by fairy lights and a puppy, the deeply unconvincing and unmoving finale relies so heavily on a tenuously established segue that it serves to further exasperate. The true perversity of this cold, hard misfire is that it’s nowhere near as psychologically interesting as it so clearly thinks it is.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords