Decidedly unnerving and uncomfortable, “Berlin Syndrome” calmly examines the disturbing relationship between its captive heroine and her twisted captor. Reminiscent of “The Collector” (1965) and many other similar thriller films, the movie is often very unpleasant to say the least, but it holds our attention via a good number of intense moments between its two main characters, and we come to observe their increasingly grim circumstance with horrible fascination.
When Clare (Teresa Palmer), a young tourist from Australia, arrives at Berlin, everything seems fine to her as she wanders around the city. She is an amateur photographer with some interest in architecture, and she is going to spend a few days in the city while searching for buildings old and beautiful enough to be captured on her camera.
After spending her first night at a hostel in the city, she comes across a local guy named Andi (Max Riemelt) on the next day. As they come to spend some together before he takes her back to the hostel, Clare becomes attracted to this total stranger, and she does not hesitate when they meet each other again on the following day. She lets him take her to his apartment located in a rather remote urban neighborhood, and they soon throw themselves into their mutual feeling.
However, things begin to go wrong for her right from the next morning. When Clare wakes up, Andi has already gone out for his work, and she finds herself locked up in the apartment. When he comes back around the evening, it merely looks like he made a mistake, but then she is again trapped inside the apartment on the following day, and his intention becomes quite clear to her as she comes to discover that his supposedly cozy apartment is more like a prison. No matter how much she tries, she cannot find any possible way to get out of the apartment while he is absent, and he has already taken care of her smartphone for preventing her from calling anyone for help.
As Clare becomes more scared and desperate, the movie shows how Andi hides his terrible secret behind his plain façade while going through his daily routine outside as usual. He is a school teacher, and his colleagues and students have no idea about what he is doing behind his back. He often visits his ailing father who teaches at a university, and there is a small chilling moment when he talks about Clare to his father while not going into details too much.
The screenplay by Shaun Grant, which is based on Melanie Joosten’s novel of the same name, wisely does not try to explain Andi’s disturbing behaviors (we can only guess he was not so happy with his mother when he was young), and it focuses instead on how Clare is slowly influenced by her captive status as she continues to be imprisoned by her captor. As alternatively oppressed and coaxed by him, she gradually looks desolate and submissive, and she often finds herself put into humiliating moments without much resistance. These moments are surely uncomfortable to watch, but they are deftly handled by director Cate Shortland with considerable restraint, and they convey well the horror of Clare’s ghastly circumstance to us while never feeling too sensational or exploitative.
Shortland also skillfully modulates the level of tension as Clare and her captor’s relationship totters on the thin line between hostility and intimacy. The mood is always tense and unstable whenever they are together in the apartment, but they also become emotionally attached to each other as time goes by. When he needs some emotional support at one point, she willingly gives him what he wants, and that moment will surely remind you of Stockholm syndrome, a famous psychological term from which the title of the movie is apparently derived.
The movie is not without weak aspects. The second act of the movie loses its pacing at times, and I think the movie could be more taut and effective if this part were trimmed a little. In addition, the movie depends too much on contrivances during its third act, and I must confess that I still do not know how a certain supporting character manages to go inside Andi’s apartment building during the climax part, which feels a bit too hurried compared to what has been accumulated during the rest of the film.
Nevertheless, I appreciated its skillful aspects. Thanks to the chilly cinematography by Germain McMicking, the sense of dread is effectively established from the very beginning, and Bryony Marks’ moody score further accentuates that impression. As Clare comes to face more of Andi’s morbid side, the atmosphere inside Andi’s apartment becomes more ominous, and we come to fear more for our unfortunate heroine who may never get out of her prison alive.
Above all, the movie is supported by well by its two lead performers. Teresa Palmer, an Australian actress who was one of substantial supporting characters in “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016), willingly throws herself into her challenging role, and she is believable in every step as her character slowly descends into hopelessness and resignation while also trying to grasp for any chance of survival. Max Reimelt, a German actor who previously appeared in “Free Fall” (2013), is also fine in his effective performance, and his uneasy interactions with his co-star on the screen always keep us on the edge.
Although it does not bring anything particularly new to its genre territory, “Berlin Syndrome” has engaging story and characters to present, and it did its job well enough to compensate for its several notable flaws. It is probably not for everyone, but this is a competent piece of work with two good performances to watch, so I recommend it with some caution.