After caning the majority of Australian releases recently, I am delighted to be able to sing the praises of the slow-burn thriller Berlin Syndrome. Unease permeates almost every scene.
Clare (Teresa Palmer), a twenty-something Australian photojournalist, arrives in Germany on a sabbatical from work. She intends to photograph Soviet-designed architecture in the hope of publishing a book. However, on her first morning in Berlin, she meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a charismatic German man who teaches English at a local high school. The instant connection and chemistry between the pair leads to a night of unbridled passion.
But when Clare goes to leave the next morning she discovers the door is locked. Not only that, but she is the only inhabitant of an otherwise abandoned apartment complex. Clare desperately tries to free herself from the unit but can’t. The windows are reinforced with Perspex and the door is bolted shut. Clare tries to reason with Andi, believing it must be some kind of misunderstanding, but he won’t let her go.
Director Cate Shortland talks about the intertwined themes contained in this story – sex and violence, power, creation and metamorphosis. She says both characters are running from the ordinary. “Clare first longs for intimacy and then freedom. Andi longs for perfection. He wants his dream relationship and will subjugate and violate to obtain it. “When Clare, his subject, becomes too familiar he longs to get rid of her, to replace her with a new model. Violence and murder are a by-product of his goal.” Shortland and screenwriter Shaun Grant (Snowtown) have woven a tale of woe based upon a Melanie Joosten’s award-winning debut novel.
As an audience member you feel trapped by Clare’s predicament. You are frequently left asking yourself what more could she do? The two leads capture the essence of their characters from the get go. Their performances are riveting. Riemelt’s edginess is chilling, Palmer’s desperation palpable – you can’t look away. You pray for a positive outcome, but you fear the worst.
The dilapidated building that Andi calls home is reflective of his troubled mind and yet on first impressions he appears to be an upright and decent guy. He could be your neighbour or mate and that is the whole point. That is what makes this story so compelling. The languid pace will trouble some, but in my eyes it served to effectively draw out the torture that was unfolding. This is fine filmmaking in a notoriously difficult genre to get right, one in which the ending can often be a letdown. Not so here. Rated MA, Berlin Syndrome scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt
Release Date: 20 April 2017
Rating: MA 15+
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television