Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading
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“…a remarkably tense and extremely confronting Australian film.”
There’s a common misconception among cinemagoers that our public sector national funding body Screen Australia is all about 100% hardcore Australiana content; Kangaroos, the outback and VB, that sort of thing. And while there is some truth to that commitment, the organisation does a bloody ripper job of looking at Australians and our national identity within a much wider, global context. Berlin Syndrome is yet another excellent example of Screen Australia’s continued efforts to demonstrate the nuances of Australia, Australians and our culture to the world.
Based on a 2012 book by Melbourne novelist Melanie Joosten, Berlin Syndrome follows an Aussie photographer (Teresa Palmer) who travels to Berlin and meets a charismatic local named Andi (Max Riemelt). Their attraction is instant, and after a day wandering the streets of Berlin together, a night of passion ensues. But what initially appears to be the start of a romance suddenly takes an unexpected and sinister turn when Clare wakes the following morning to discover Andi has left for work and locked her in his apartment. An easy mistake to make, of course, except Andi has no intention of letting her go again. Ever.
Thanks in large part to Australian director Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), the film is definitely far more auteur than blockbuster. Generally, these kinds of kidnap-thrillers are so infuriating – particularly for female viewers – where there is a very clear “Man is strong, woman helpless” vibe going on. It makes the whole affair predictable and boring to watch, especially when another man ultimately “rescues” her (insert derisive eye roll).
Here, Shortland and screenwriter Shaun Grant (Snowtown, Jasper Jones) do a tremendous job of leveling the playing field of power in this narrative. Sure, Clare is being held prisoner – but she is certainly not a victim, in fact she may be more devious and clever than her captor. It’s refreshing if nothing else to see the genre being ripped up a bit, and makes the uncertainty of the story far more interesting. You just never know what’s going to happen.
Another persistent bugaboo with these kind of films is that there’s usually an unbearable heavy-handedness to them, where the directors rely almost entirely on clumsy tropes like a big, swelling brass musical score (dum..dum DUUUUUMMM!!) and closely cropped “waist-up” camera angles to build suspense. It’s completely ineffective and always spoils an otherwise great story from being told.
Again, Shortland seems to know when and how to stay out of her own way. She is measured in her directorial devices, where the less she uses the more impact the film seems to have.
This presents a particularly massive challenge for the actors – taking away every conceivable crutch and leaving them with nothing but each other and a single room. It was a big ask on Shortland’s part, but bloody hell, Palmer and Riemelt are explosive. Unencumbered by the standard genre elements, the pair instead undergoes a furious tête-à-tête of focused and surprisingly subtle mental and physical battles.
Palmer – traditionally speaking – has never really been given a good go without the dramatic training wheels. But here, with nothing but herself and sometimes one other person, she exercises every weapon in her arsenal to deliver a performance that is disturbing, ugly, vicious and unequivocally her best to date.
Berlin Syndrome is a remarkably tense and extremely confronting film. Shortland’s bleak and “everything-in-plain-sight” direction makes the viewer feel this terrible sense of dread and panic. You may not have been kidnaped while travelling overseas, but there is somehow an intensely unsettling familiarity created here – “It’s too real” you’ll find yourself saying. If you’re into feeling really anxious or like it when directors break all the genre rules, you’ll be stoked with Berlin Syndrome.