By Meriel Ledwith
Whilst passing through the German capital looking to get a taste of the city’s life, Australian traveler (Teresa Palmer) meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a charming Berliner and a holiday romance ensue. The morning after a night of intense passion the backpacker finds herself locked in the abandoned apartment. a locked front door is quickly revealed to be something more sinister than a simple mistake. In Cate Shortland’s Psychological-thriller “Berlin Syndrome” (2017) the stuff of tourist night terrors manifests in ways far worse than a lost passport or an S-Bahn fine.
Psychologically rich, cinematically haunting, Shortland’s Australian-French horror grips you and doesn’t let you go. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the chilling feature is a cinematic master course in nail-biting suspense. Following in the footsteps of “Room” (2015, Lenny Abrahamson), Shortland offers a welcomed addition to the genre of hostage-horror.
Palmer’s internalized performance as the backpacker is committed and convincing throughout. Slow burning and gut-wrenching, Palmer inspires empathy and terror as the Photographer looking to gain “life experiences” in the European capital. The actress offers an eerie doe-eyed perplexity of the childlike state Claire is reduced to. Pulsing between self-protective submission and outbursts of attempting freedom, Claire’s wavering plight provides a metronome against which Andi remains a consistent frosty calm.
Max Riemelt is both charming and terrifying as antagonist Andi, a manipulative Berliner working as an English teacher. Riemelt’s potential was evident from the start of the film making process with the actor’s ability to convey the bloodcurdling shamelessness of Andi garnering Shortland’s attention during casting. Free to leave his isolated apartment as he chooses, Andi’s screen time offers the perspective of calculated sociopath navigating life in Berlin. He balances work, socializing and visiting his father, all whilst Claire is confined to a domestic nightmare.
“Palmer’s internalised performance as the backpacker is committed and convincing throughout. Slow burning and gut-wrenching, Palmer inspires empathy and terror…The actress offers an eerie doe-eyed perplexity of the childlike state Claire is reduced to.”
Emerging from un underground Station in East Berlin’s social hub of Kreuzberg in the film’s opening, neither Claire nor the audience can expect the horror in store for our protagonist. Shortland’s brief, albeit considered polaroid of modern berlin is convincing and entrancing. Her presentation of the city at once invites and alienates. With skimming streets shots of compromised vantage point, the film’s cinematography continues to lure you in and put you on edge, mirroring the city’s charm on our heroine. It is, of course, watching the city’s liberating effect on Claire which makes her later entrapment all the more tragic. Similarly, screen composer Bryony Marks (Noise, Goddess) delights and deters the audience with a soundtrack of tense yet uplifting tracks.
The film does well to take advantage of its setting’s ties to gruesome tales. Accumulating images of sweet, forbidden fruit, triste German woodlands, and breadcrumb trails present a cinematic landscape reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm. As Claire’s dependence on her captor for survival develops we are presented with a Twisted fairy tale where Andi is both the woodcutter and the big bad wolf.
As in the film’s source material, the novel of the same name by Melanie Joosten, Shortland’s depiction of male enforced entrapment also at times reads like a love-letter to high Gothic literature. Complete with a tight focus on the importance of locks and keys, letters and messages, the world of Andi’s apartment feels removed from the modern metropolitan Berlin. Robbed of her documents, mobile SIM, and agency, the protagonist plummets into a Radcliffian nightmare.
Another thematic note Shortland hits is East Berlin’s cultural connection with restricted movement which continuously resonates with the narrative’s content. Both visual and spoken references of the oppressive regime of the German Democratic Republic run alongside the claustrophobic entrapment Claire finds herself in within the relationship and physical space.
“Where many horrors fall short in portraying complex female leads and avoiding exploitative representation, “Berlin Syndrome” offers a Female Gothic cinematic classic for the modern age.”
Although Shortland’s rendering of Claire’s entrapped position is rife with toe clenching tension, her navigation of the abusive relationship remains tasteful throughout. From the offset, Shortland holds the cinematic male-gaze into question and deems it as dangerous. From stalking camera angles depicting Andi’s point-of-view to his oppressive claiming of Claire’s camera, Shortland’s deconstruction of this phenomenon is evident and powerful in such a male-dominated genre.
Gratuitous violence and nudity are rightfully avoided and sensationalized notions of female suffering are scarce, never veering on the territory of Exploitation Cinema. Contemporary horrors centring around themes of entrapment and female liberation such as such as in Stephen R. Monroe’s “I Spit on your Grave” and Dennis Iliadis’ “The Last House on the Left” may feature female leads and claim to celebrate the power of the woman scorned but are ultimately voyeuristic, unconsidered representation of female suffering. Where many horrors fall short in portraying complex female leads and avoiding exploitative representation, Berlin Syndrome offers a Female Gothic cinematic classic for the modern age.