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Film review: Berlin Syndrome

Film & TV

What begins as a holiday romance quickly turns into a tense, claustrophobic thriller in this Australian film set in crumbling Berlin and starring Adelaide actress Teresa Palmer.

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Clare is a tourist from Brisbane, fuelling her passion for architecture and photojournalism by shooting ramshackle buildings in the former German Democratic Republic.

The plane ride over was her first flight, she had her first drags from a cigarette during an all-nighter on a roof with other tourists, and, after meeting the handsome and charismatic schoolteacher Andi, she has another first.

She’s young and naïve, which is perfect for finding yourself swept away by a one-night stand, and she’s not opposed to it turning into fling that lasts a few days before she moves on. But when Clare realises Andi has locked her inside his apartment and has no plans of letting her go, the stage for Berlin Syndrome has been set.

This is where things get intense.

The title of the film plays on the term “the Stockholm Syndrome”, in which a captive grows to care for her captor. This is explored off and on throughout Berlin Syndrome but Australian director Cate Shortland might be too much of a feminist to let it rest there, and Berlin, in its persistent crumbling state, is a better location.

Andi lives in an abandoned building, one of many in the post-GDR landscape, where no one can hear Clare’s screams or see her pounding against the doubly-secured windows. Shortland has spent time living in Germany and is well-suited to working through the historical implications of what it might mean to live in a place like the former GDR and, because of the wall, not be able to freely come and go.

Melanie Joosten, also Australian, wrote her debut book of the same title with these intentions, but I’m not sure screenwriter Shaun Grant went far enough in teasing out the metaphor for film. It feels like more could have been made of it for an audience wanting an art-house adaptation of a literary novel.

As it stands, Berlin Syndrome is grounded in its genre of captivity narrative, meshing with a “cautionary tale” for young travellers, and I struggled to find anything unique about the film in relation to others of the sort. But as a work in and of itself, there’s no doubt it’s disturbing in plot, well-acted by Adelaide-born Teresa Palmer and Germany’s Max Riemelt, and features interesting cinematography.

Jiggy camerawork due to extreme close-ups following Clare in action at the beginning of the film prove her to be out of place in a foreign land, lost, but trying to find her way. The camera settles once the tension is amplified and we understand what’s actually taking place, but just as the vertigo dissipates within us, claustrophobia takes over.

The entertainment value is no doubt due to the levels of discomfort we, as voyeurs of Andi’s secret, feel, knowing Clare could easily have been someone we once knew, someone we know now, or even, at one point in our lives, us.

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