A Film a Week - Berlin Syndrome

Every time has its own special place to name it the centre of the world. Paris and Vienna were that in the beginning of the last century, London and New York were that at the end of 20th and in the beginning of ours. Nowadays, it is Berlin, the liberal-minded work and travel and squat and party destination made from the anarchist tradition of its western part and ashes of the eastern part’s socialism. The youth going there to pass or to stay for a while does not care much about that, Berlin is just a cool place to be at one point. And like any cool big city, Berlin can also be a very lonely place, which is one of the alleys Berlin Syndrome goes.

For Claire (young Australian star Teresa Palmer), a young photographer interested in GDR architecture, Berlin is a place where she wants to find herself. However, she will find Andi (Max Riemelt), seemingly cool school teacher who seems like an ideal partner for a fling. So she agrees to spend the night in his apartment only to find herself locked inside the next morning when he goes to work. It does not take much for her to realize that she is a captive and that the way out will not be easy.

The basic idea is straight out of horror genre, but the screenwriter Shaun Grant adapting the novel by Melanie Joosten and especially the director Cate Shortland are more interested in psychological drama of it all. As the title suggests, it has something to do with Stockholm syndrome: when Claire realizes the resistance is futile, she gets used to the daily routine of living with a man with quite a peculiar idea of being romantic. Also, Andi is not your basic film psychopath, sure he is a functional one, hiding “mommy issues” behind the facade of a quiet man, but there is more to him than his routine and his quirks.

Both of the actors thrive on their well-written characters. Teresa Palmer delivers an understated, soulful, quiet performance, while Riemelt’s calmness, sincerity and naivety makes his character even more chilling. Their chemistry is evident in the scenes they share and Shortland’s sense of space, a confined one that is, adds another layer to the overall unpleasant atmosphere.

The problem with films like Berlin Syndrome is once the setting is done and the woman ends up kidnapped, there is not much room for experimenting. The not so deep psychology can hold our attention for a while and Cate Shortland is a very skilled filmmaker to take the maximum of it and her previous effort Lore is a stellar example of a trans-genre approach. Still, around midpoint, Berlin Syndrome starts to drag a bit and the whole third act requires a considerable suspension of disbelief, but in the end this Australian-German co-production from this year’s Sundance Festival is worth watching for the reason of talent on screen and behind it going from horror to drama to thriller and back.

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