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Non-Review Review: Berlin Syndrome

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Berlin Syndrome is a potentially interesting psychological drama about kidnapping and captivity that gets  lost in a CriminalMinds-style focus on the perpetrator and an awkward attempt to shoehorn near-misses into the script.

Berlin Syndrome seems to be named in allusion to Stolkholm Syndrome, the psychological label applied to the co-dependent relationship that may form between captive and captor; the geographic shift in the title is a nod to the story’s setting. Shaun Grant and Cate Shortland’s adaptation of Melanie Joosten’s novel follows a young Australian backpacker who hooks up with a stranger for a one-night stand in Berlin only to find herself locked in a creepy apartment in the abandoned quarter.

Killer one night stand.

Killer one night stand.

Berlin Syndrome works best when it stays with Clare as she finds herself locked in this city apartment and trying simply to stay alive while weighing the possibility of escape. Cate Shortland brilliantly captures Clare’s sense of anxiety and uncertainty, balancing on a knife-edge as she tries to avoid provoking her captor while also trying to figure out a way out of this trap. However, Berlin Syndrome loses tension when it allows its focus to drift away from Clare and to focus upon the life and tribulations of Andi, the kidnapper.

The result is a film that struggles to maintain a sense of tone, veering radically between the trauma and terror of Clare’s experience and the more sensationalist thrills of a conventional serial killer narrative. Berlin Syndrome cannot decide whether it is a gripping psychological thriller or heightened schlock, and suffers from that lack of definition.

"This means nothing to me... ... oh, wrong song."

“This means nothing to me…
… oh, wrong song.”

Berlin Syndrome is most effective when it focuses on Clare. The early sequences that build a sense of mounting dread as Clare begins to suspect that something has gone horribly wrong after a one night stand with her charming and handsome suitor. A lot of this is down to the skill of Teresa Palmer, who creates a fairly compelling portrait of a character transitioning from the early “this is a bit strange…” reaction to things like a bolted door or the inescapable nature of the flat through to sheer panic as the details of the situation become clear.

Indeed, Palmer very much anchors the film as Clare embarks upon a frankly terrifying emotional journey. As Andi becomes increasingly unhinged and as her situation becomes increasingly clear, Clare finds herself grappling with all manner of terrifying questions. How far will so go in order to survive? How does she confront the inevitability of her own death? Can she predict Andi’s moods and his temperament? How far can she push him without him push back? What is the best strategy to keep herself alive?

Window into her soul.

Window into her soul.

These are powerful and haunting questions. Berlin Syndrome works best when it steps outside the two leads, capturing Clare’s emotional distress and psychological breakdown. The grim parody of married life makes for skin-crawling viewing, with Andi essentially constructing a middle-class fantasy for himself and Clare forced into a grim role-play with the most horrifying stakes and the most uncomfortable price. Palmer captures the horror perfectly, playing Clare’s physical and emotional exhaustion against her survival instincts.

Unfortunately, Berlin Syndrome cannot maintain that level of interest and unease. The narrative splits its time between Clare and Andi. Indeed, the story repeatedly leaves Andi’s apartment to follow him to work as he stalks new victims and interacts awkwardly with his work colleagues. Indeed, the film indulges in the sort of dime-store serial killer psychology that is expected of low-rent thrillers. Andi has a strained relationship with his father, and his compulsive need to hold women captive is presented as a response to his mother’s defection during the Cold War.

Sleeping with the enemy.

Sleeping with the enemy.

It all feels very trite and familiar, undercutting the tension of that smaller narrative focused on Clare. More than that, though, the decision to split focus between Andi and Clare leads to a number of other problems with the film. Most obviously, following Andi out of the apartment chips away at the claustrophobia and anxiety that makes Clare’s captivity so harrowing, instead following Andi out into the world where he is another handsome and charming sociopath who hits all of the expected character markers for a serial killer.

It makes Berlin Syndrome more conventional, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but which does play against the genuine creepiness and horror of Clare’s experience. Similarly, Berlin Syndrome feels the need to offer up stock nail-biting thriller sequences that feel lifted from an altogether trashier story. At several points in the narrative, Berlin Syndrome goes out of its way to set up an ending only to offer a last minute twist that pulls the rug out from under the audience in the most expected manner possible. (Berlin Syndrome is full of interruptions and diversions.)

Relationships can be murder.

Relationships can be murder.

Berlin Syndrome is half a compelling psychological horror and half a schlocky serial killer thriller, unable to choose between one approach or the other. Either would be fine, but they do not mix especially well.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

2 Responses

  1. I enjoyed reading your review even though I cannot agree with your conclusions. This film works precisely because of its exploration of the apparent normality of the perpertrator and the complicit nature of the captive. The tension is constant and rises for a sharp finish.

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