Every tourist’s worst nightmare comes true in Berlin Syndrome, an exploration of a German man’s deranged psyche as he imprisons an Australian woman in his apartment.
Adapted for the screen by Shaun Grant (The Snowtown Murders) from the debut novel by Melanie Joosten, first published in 2011, the film version was directed by Cate Shortland. Her past films, including Somersault and Lore, demonstrated her visual talents — especially a conscious variety in framing and shot composition — which deepen the vivid impressions left by the dark subject matter.
That’s especially helpful in Berlin Syndrome, since about half the running time is spent in an apartment where Andi (Max Riemelt) has locked up Clare (Teresa Palmer). Their relationship began as a one-night fling. Clare, a quiet, shy woman, decided that she needed a change in her life, so she closed up shop in Australia and is traveling through Europe on her own.
Andi is good-looking and charming; in the bedroom, he puts Clare’s interests ahead of his own. She feels good about things in the morning and is ready to travel onward, but then Andi shows his true colors and Clare’s future is in peril.
The setting shifts between Andi’s apartment, the only one inhabited in an otherwise abandoned and very large complex, and Andi’s life on the outside, where he is a schoolteacher and visits his aged father and shops for groceries and demonstrates his misogyny, almost on a daily basis.
Ideally, we’d be able to peer into Clare’s mind to hear what she’s thinking. Perhaps Joosten’s novel does that, but Grant’s script does not. Instead, director Shortland seeks to illustrate Clare’s slowly deteriorating spirit with a series of small actions. Soon enough, though, that becomes extremely frustrating, both for Clare and for the audience.
If the intention was to make Clare’s emotions palpable through the anguish on her face and the desperate measures she takes, then Berlin Syndrome certainly succeeds. It’s more difficult to penetrate the long stretches devoted to Andi’s outside affairs, which tend to make him appear more sympathetic, humanizing the monster that he is in his interactions with Clare.
It’s all very troubling, to say the least. Teresa Palmer is extremely persuasive as our sympathetic heroine, who finds herself in a horrible situation with very few options for survival. On the most basic terms, she’s an undeserving victim, but Palmer makes evident her character’s humanity. Her spirit may be crumbling, yet her will to live remains very strong.
Max Riemelt is convincingly threatening as Andi. It’s difficult to understand his character’s motivations, however, which could have made the entire movie more persuasive. If he’s just a symbol of evil, that’s one thing, but since he occasionally acts in a manner that’s not entirely evil, it would help to have some idea of his errant beginnings that make him such an abhorrent human being.
Berlin Syndrome is not an “enjoyable” movie, but it is a fascinating attempt to wrestle with the profound issues that are manifested in the two lead characters.
The film opens on Friday, May 26, at the AMC Grapevine Mills.