Review: Berlin Syndrome
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Director: Cate Shortland

Starring: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, and Matthias Habich

I had an analogy about the Berghain and Berlin Syndrome both being dark and hard to get into, but the film is so harrowing that an analogy to a nightclub is probably inappropriate. Nevertheless, there it is. An analogy about being hard to get out of may be more apt since the film is a confinement thriller. Berlin Syndrome is the story of Clare, a young Australian woman on an adventure through Europe, who finds herself held captive in Berlin by a charming local turned abusive imprisoner. Despite being dark and hard to get into/out of, the film is excellent and worth the payoff for the more courageous viewer.

With early foreshadowing, it is apparent that there is more to this story than sightseeing and the sharing of joints at backpackers. The film takes place in East Berlin, and the architecture of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) features heavily. Clare, a photojournalist, is fascinated by this architecture. Inspired by the Stalinist (neoclassical) architectural style, the post-war concrete monuments were the optimistic projection of a Soviet future that now lay dilapidated and graffiti covered. This urban decay hints at something dark to come.

While photographing the city, Clare meets a handsome local, English language teacher, Andi. Any romantic feelings she has for Andi are quickly replaced with terror as she finds herself held against her will in his escape-proof, retrofitted apartment. It is apparent that she is not the first person to be held there. The film deals with issues of control and violence as Clare manages her ever complicating relationship with her captor to ensure her survival.

This film is a conversation starter, and they will not be easy conversations to have. Stockholm Syndrome is a condition that causes hostages to bond with their captors. The implication here is that the film’s ‘Berlin Syndrome’ isn’t too different. Does Clare develop genuine affection for her capture, is she feigning a connection to ensure her survival, or is she conflicted? Subtle performances mean these are all questions left for the viewer to answer.

A highlight of the film is its style, pacing, and cinematography. Director Cate Shortland contrasts stylised and tranquil imagery with menacing and harrowing surroundings. The audience is given a breather from disturbing scenes with moments of serenity. If you are going to make it through all two hours, you’ll need those breathers. The film could have been shorter and despite a decent attempt to develop the character of her captor, Andi’s motives remain somewhat opaque. However, this is a welcome alternative to two-dimensional captors usually seen in the genre.

If the film had a higher body count, it could easily have been a horror, but as we know from some high profile cases, these horrors are all too often a reality. In this sense, the film actively resists the sensationalism of a horror or other confinement thrillers, and in some ways – because of this and the questions Clare’s relationship with her captor raises – it is more terrifying. An all-around excellent film, so if you have a Europe trip planned and feel like tempering your wanderlust, check out Berlin Syndrome at Luna Cinemas from Thursday 20 April, with streaming coming soon to Netflix.

Words by Julian Coleman