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Australian director Cate Shortland brought a piercing female gaze both to the jailbait protagonist of her lyrical first feature, Somersault, and the conflicted teenage Nazi offspring at the center of her German-language follow-up, Lore. But audiences looking for the illuminating perspective of an intelligent woman director on the kind of sexual-captivity scenario that dates back to The Collector might come away disappointed from Berlin Syndrome. Driven by a compellingly internalized performance from Teresa Palmer as the conflicted prey, this is a case of expert filmmaking craft applied to a familiar story that becomes unrelentingly grim and drawn out after its masterful setup.
Adapted from the novel by Melanie Joosten, the script is by Shaun Grant, whose flair for violently squirmy drama with abduction elements was evident in his screenplay for Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders. That fact-based shocker had tension that grabbed you by the throat even when torture scenes made you want to look away.
Shortland is more interested in the psychological nuances, and as the title suggests, the warring impulses of a captive woman terrified but confused by the closeness that develops with her jailer. This is a tricky emotional knot to put onscreen, and a Sundance entry from two years back, Stockholm, Pennsylvania, bungled it with a schematic script that didn’t hold water. That film had more in common with Room, focusing on the after-effects of abduction and prolonged confinement more than the captivity itself.
Palmer suggests a slightly lost young woman looking for new directions in the intriguing early scenes, when backpacker Clare arrives in the German city to photograph the severe architecture of the former East Berlin for a planned book project. She shares a joint and a drink with fellow guests on the roof of the youth hostel where she’s staying, but is otherwise very much alone. That makes her receptive to the flirty conversation of schoolteacher Andi (Max Riemelt) at a traffic light. He seems mellow and warm as he shows her through the garden where his father grows strawberries. Despite their obvious mutual attraction, they say a chaste goodnight and she plans to leave for Dresden the next morning.
But Clare is compelled to stay and seek out Andi, finding him in a bookstore perusing a volume on Klimt. Her observation on the way the subject in the artist’s famed Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is holding her hand to hide her deformity will come back to haunt her when her own hand is viciously mangled days later.
Shortland handles the foreshadowing skillfully, not just with an assist from composer Bryony Marks’ unsettling electronic score, but in moments like the couple’s rapturous first sexual experience together in the otherwise abandoned apartment block where Andi lives. Encouraging her moans of pleasure, he says with ominous undertones, “No one will hear you.” From the start, it’s clear this will not be a fine romance, a threat amplified in the insidious framing of Germain McMicking’s moody widescreen visuals, whether capturing buildings, spaces or bodies.
When Clare finds herself locked in Andi’s apartment while he goes to work, she at first buys his excuse of a mixup with the keys. But by day two, alarming evidence reveals that he intends to keep her there, behind the reinforced windows and heavy security doors in an isolated neighborhood with no passing foot traffic.
With chilling calm, he blames her for choosing to stay rather than leave for Dresden, and there’s a part of Clare that possibly concedes she was subconsciously seeking danger. Andi’s creepy attitudes about women are suggested by exchanges with students and fellow teachers, and by what he perceives as his mother’s betrayal for leaving his elderly father (Matthias Habich). But mostly, he strives to maintain a forced domesticity, returning home with flowers and gifts, and preparing meals as if they were an ordinary couple. That cold composure gives Riemelt (Sense8) too few layers to uncover in what’s largely a one-dimensional characterization.
Once all the pieces are in place, much of the tautness and mystery of the movie’s gripping first half begins to fall away. Following the action becomes increasingly thankless as Clare works through all her options, from reasoning to attempted escape to playing along with Andi’s charade of normal cohabitation, even encouraging his twisted notions of ownership.
As good as Palmer is (giving off a distinct Kristen Stewart vibe here, which makes one think of the Panic Room kid, all grown up), the thriller becomes predictable and over-extended. The requisite close calls and moments of dread, the irrational empathy impulses of hostage toward captor, and the horrific discoveries as she realizes time is running out — these elements all start to feel more inevitable than engrossing. As psychodrama, it runs out of juice, perhaps because Shortland doesn’t go far enough with the Stockholm syndrome theme, even if careful thought has clearly gone into Palmer’s opaque performance, which keeps us guessing about the degree to which Clare is faking it or feeling it.
The movie lurches rather than races toward a problematic conclusion involving a minor character that stretches credibility, ultimately suggesting that Shortland is more at home exploring off-kilter relationship dynamics than with the jagged rhythms and ever-heightening stakes of the genre piece that Berlin Syndrome eventually becomes.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Distribution: Vertical Entertainment/Netflix
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading, Elmira Bahrami, Christoph Franken
Production company: Aquarius Films
Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriter: Shaun Grant, based on the novel by Melanie Joosten
Producer: Polly Staniford
Executive producers: Angie Fielder, Troy Lum, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed, Tanja Meissner, Nicholas Kaiser, Oliver Lawrence, Florence Tourbier, Scott Anderson, Photoplay Films
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Costume designer: Maria Pattison
Music: Bryony Marks
Editor: Jack Hutchings
Casting: Anja Dihrberg, Kirsty McGregor
Sales: Memento International
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