Given Berlin’s dark history, there’s a rich metaphor hidden within the title of Cate Shortland’s tense, traumatic boy-meets-girl, boy-kidnaps-girl thriller.
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Clare (Teresa Palmer), a young Australian photographer, is backpacking solo around Germany on a journey of soul-searching and self-discovery. A chance meeting with a handsome, charismatic local named Andi (Max Riemelt) leads to the pair spending the day together, then eventually a passionate one-night stand. Waking the next morning, Clare finds herself locked inside Andi’s apartment. Believing this to be a simple mistake at first, she soon comes to the sinister realisation that she is Andi’s new prisoner.
From Misery to The Silence of the Lambs to Gone Baby Gone to many, many others – kidnapping and abduction is definitely nothing new in cinema. What makes Cate Shortland’s (Somersault) third feature Berlin Syndrome so fresh is its unnervingly organic and genuine take on the subject. One of the biggest phobias associated with travel anxiety is given a painstakingly real treatment via a slow build of tension – the disoriented awe of being in an unfamiliar place, the exciting rush of a spontaneous encounter with a stranger, the “surely not” moment of disbelief, followed by the true horror of an irrational fear confirmed.
Shortland expertly guides us through these motions, subtly hiding double meanings in motifs and moments as an effectively eerie foreshadowing device of what’s to come. The captor/captive dynamic of the pair once Andi’s true intentions are revealed is where things become very interesting. Both Andi and Clare’s actions become highly unpredictable as each delves into the complicated emotions on either side of the coin.
Teresa Palmer, who’s been a long-time presence in both local films and big Hollywood blockbusters, has always been reliable, yet has never been given the chance to truly showcase her talents as an actress until now. Hearing her speak in her modest Aussie accent is a little offbeat at first, but it lends to a nuanced, naturalistic performance that feels like this could very well be a girl you know whisked away on her Euro trip. She makes a meal of the complexities of being prisoner to someone she thought she could trust, plus there’s something in her eyes that seems to suggest she’s hiding something throughout; she’s utterly mesmerising.
Likewise, Max Riemelt is a fascinating monster. He’s simultaneously charming and intimidating, his straight face never giving away the threatening things he has planned. In an inventive twist, we also see Andi’s normal life outside of the apartment; functioning beneath a mask as a teacher, but with his rage against women and fear of his double life’s exposure bubbling to the surface.
Though a tad repetitive and drawn out at times, Berlin Syndrome’s uncomfortable levels of tension and hypnotising leads keep it a compelling, almost-too-real watch. How it all wraps up is shattering and immensely satisfying.
Berlin Syndrome is available in Australian cinemas from April 20
Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films