“…the palpable sense of tension and desperation that builds so ominously, is expertly enhanced by Bryony Marks’ sparingly applied, rather eerie soundtrack.”
Almost all of the feedback that I’ve heard since seeing Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome (some weeks back now), has been in some way negative, and quite frankly I find that baffling.
Shortland’s film – based upon Melanie Joosten’s novel, with a screenplay by Shaun Grant – tells the tale of a young Australian photojournalist, Clare (Teresa Palmer), on holiday in Berlin. Here she falls for a quietly charming Berliner, Andi (Max Riemelt), and a holiday romance quickly blossoms.
As with all good holidays though, Clare’s quickly comes to an end, and having waved goodbye to her Berlin beau, she reluctantly prepares to move on. Unable to quite bring herself to leave, however, Clare performs a swift u-turn and surprises Andi by extending her stay a little longer, and they spend one final passionate night in Andi’s apartment.
The following morning, with Andi having gone to work, Clare gathers her things and prepares once again to leave. Only, she can’t. The apartment has been locked. With no spare key and having exhausted all other possibilities, Clare resigns herself to a further day in Andi’s apartment until he returns from work.
Clare will wait patiently until the evening. They will laugh about the unfortunate mix up, and she will then head off that evening.
Or so she thinks.
Berlin Syndrome is, more than anything, a refreshingly original take on the whole ‘kidnap’ film genre, exploring this concept from both the victim and the perpetrator’s point of view. What initially appears to be something of a mutually exciting rendezvous, quickly dissolves into something of a toxic partnership; a free spirit unfortunate to find herself seduced by a troubled man with a very genuine antisocial personality disorder.
From short-term lover to distressed prisoner, to resigned captive, Clare goes through the entire gamut of emotions, trying in vain not only to escape her imprisonment, but given the hopelessness of her predicament, to also come to terms with her lot.
Andi on the other hand, far from being painted to be some sort of mysterious, one-dimensional Nosferatu type, is observed going about his daily business as a teacher and dutiful family member; a repetitive routine built upon an enormous lie which, on admitting to his work colleagues that he has a new girlfriend, becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Clare’s continued non-appearance at social functions sparks suspicions and doubts within the minds of Andi’s colleagues as to whether she even exists at all.
Andi’s assessment of his relationship – and indeed even what constitutes a relationship in the first place – is bordering on tunnel-visioned and autistic in its single-mindedness. Somehow justifying everything in his own mind, he ignores Clare’s repeated, somewhat peripheral (to him) cries for help and pleas for mercy.
Considering the remote location of Andi’s apartment and his attention to the very smallest of details when it comes to keeping his ‘prison’ secure, if Clare is to ever escape, it’s going to take something particularly imaginative.
Gradually, however, with the passing of time, Clare’s omnipresent hopes of escape gradually diminish, whilst her reliance upon and empathy towards her captor steadily intensifies.
Shortland’s piece is a fascinating glimpse at this most dysfunctional of ‘relationships’, built as it is upon distress, delusion, reluctant acceptance and outright fear. Rarely if ever does Shortland resort to sensationalism, adopting instead an approach that is subtle and thought-provoking, steering almost entirely away from the predictable or clichéd. And the palpable sense of tension and desperation that builds so ominously, is expertly enhanced by Bryony Marks’ sparingly-applied, rather eerie soundtrack.
Teresa Palmer is excellent portraying this particular damsel in distress, whilst Max Riemelt’s turn as the unpredictable, insecure, Andi, is cold, aloof and lacking in compassion – exactly what’s required.
Berlin Syndrome doesnt’ necessarily redefine the genre of ‘kidnap cinema’, but through its clever exploration of both the captor and the captive, and of the rather muddled grey area that constitutes the awkward ‘bond’ between them, it provides a refreshingly honest dose of bleak realism in this well-balanced, uber-tense and compelling tale.