Berlin Syndrome: NZIFF Review
The holiday romance turns very sour in Berlin Syndrome, the first NZIFF title to feel like a commercial release.
In the adaptation of Melanie Joosten's 2011 novel, Brisbane back-packer Clare (Teresa Palmer, I Am Number Four) is on her own in Germany when a chance meeting at a traffic lights with English teacher Andi (Max Riemelt, Sense 8) takes place.
Attracted to each other, the pair edge their way to a highly charged encounter. The following morning, when Andi goes to work, Clare finds herself locked in the isolated apartment. Assuming it's an error, she dismisses it, but when the key she's given the next morning doesn't work and she discovers her phone's SIM card is gone, terror starts to creep in....
Berlin Syndrome had the potential to be a cliché (and sadly heads that way a little at the end), but instead offers a thriller that's more unsettling and psychologically creepy as it unspools.
It helps that Palmer has the right mix of vulnerable and lost in the early stages as she mixes the scared and excited of a tourist in a new city when she exits the Berlin underground. Not your typical backpacker and not saddled with a 'I'm running away /finding myself' back-story, Clare's actions seem plausible as the story plays out.
Director Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore) takes time to build an atmosphere that's filled with inherent dread as the captivity begins and as Andi becomes cold, distant and definitely creepy. Shortland front-loads the bases from the get go, giving Berlin Syndrome a sense of something sinister lurking; whether it's shots of the ancient architecture of Berlin or the foreshadowing in art book.
It helps that Max Riemelt plays Andi without the usual tropes of a maniac and seems all the more unhinged because of his own charm and detached affability. In scenes with his father and with hints of the Berlin Wall past trauma, there's lots left unsaid that help to build an atmosphere but which may frustrate those looking for a simple reason why he is what he is. (Though, arguably, he's responsible for some truly laugh out loud lines as he carries on like an apparently normal couple - pesto will never look the same again.)
But subtle is what Berlin Syndrome does best in its terrific opening half, as we follow Clare, discovering the clues as she does and leading to those heart-in-mouth moments. Palmer does much to imbue her character with a retreat-in-your-shell mentality to help with survival.
Ultimately, and sadly, Berlin Syndrome may lose some impact because of its resolution, but what plays out prior to that is quite gripping and filled with suspense.
Thanks to Shortland's eye for the smaller moments and Palmer's carefully selective and introverted turn, Berlin Syndrome ends up being more captivating and psychologically disturbing than you'd expect.