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You’ve seen a version of Berlin Syndrome before. It’s the type of thriller where the heroine becomes romantically involved with someone who at first seems utterly perfect – handsome, caring, funny – but is later revealed to be a full-blown psychopath. However, it’s rare to see these types of films made with such skill.
Teresa Palmer (Lights Out, Warm Bodies) plays Claire, an Australian backpacking across Germany. In the opening scenes, she appears lonely, with the isolation of travelling the world alone taking its toll. Things seem to looking up when she meets Andi (Sense8’s Max Riemelt), a charismatic and handsome German schoolteacher. However, all is not as it seems. It’s not long until Claire’s one-night stand has trapped her in his apartment, and he’s determined never to let her go.
Berlin Syndrome marks director Cate Shortland’s first foray into genre filmmaking, following her dramas Somersault and Lore. This background in more subtle character-focused pictures seems to have benefited her latest. She manages to convey information without the use of words that a lesser film would spell out in block capitals. The opening scenes never explicitly state that Claire is lonely and seeking connection. Yet, the audience learn this from just a brief simple moment – the beaming smile she gives after being invited by fellow tourists to drink on the roof of the apartment block they share.
This lack of plot exposition continues throughout. For example – it’s never explicitly stated why Andi acts as he does – leaving the film feeling slightly more mature than a typical B-movie. Although Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is an undisputed masterpiece, it’s worst moment is the closing with horrendously clunky exposition for Norman Bates’ actions. There are no such scenes in Berlin Syndrome. Plus, Shortland’s emphasis on visuals, rather than extraneous dialogue, enables the story to always glide forward with no script howlers to take the viewer out of the movie.
Perhaps due to being made by a female filmmaker, Berlin Syndrome also benefits from a distinct lack of sexualised violence against women, a stigma that tends to mark these types of thriller (see M. Night Shyamalan’s recent Split). Instead, Shortland and writer Shaun Grant (basing the film on the novel of the same name by Melanie Joosten) mine creepiness from the trivial everyday details of Claire’s situation, things which clash jarringly with the craziness of the scenario. Andi removing his future victim’s sim card as she sleeps is terrifying, particularly as he follows it with non-sequiturs like “Do you like pesto?”. At one point, he even has the tenacity to play the put-upon boyfriend, asking his captive why she can’t “be normal”.
Occasionally, this emphasis on character causes the film to lag in pace. At 116 minutes, the movie could be a little tighter as one particular sub-plot regarding the relationship between Andi and his father goes nowhere. However, even in these moments the performances keep one invested. Palmer and Riemelt are supremely watchable actors and up until its tense finale, Berlin Syndrome entertains.
Berlin Syndrome was screened at the recent Audi Dublin International Film Festival on February 23rd.