A chance encounter could lead to the gravest of consequences. More specifically, you never know if a stranger is a controlling sociopath. Berlin Syndrome, screened at Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), takes you on an innocent backpacking adventure with Australian Clare (Teresa Palmer). She meets Andi (Max Riemelt) in Germany, as the title advertises. From there, Clare’s life is slowly thrown into sheer chaos.
What’s immediately striking about Berlin Syndrome is its ominous tone. At every turn, you’re expecting something dreadful to happen. Even during the honeymoon phase of Clare and Andi’s relationship that lasted all of one day, you feel at unease watching these two hook up. In that sense, the film plays on your prior knowledge that you (hopefully) know the premise: Clare and Andi bang, after which Andi locks Clare in his fortress of a loft indefinitely. With that information on your mind, you’re constantly waiting for “the moment” in the early parts of the movie. It’s a horrifying idea of a plot executed via mildly-flawed pacing.
When the tension does pick up, expect to live at the edge of your seat over the next hour or so. There are exhilarating sequences during Clare’s foreseen escape attempts, for which director Cate Shortland deserves commending. Shortland has a knack for creating an unsettling atmosphere and staging stressful scenarios. The highly-engaging performances of Palmer and Riemelt adds another layer of suspense to Berlin Syndrome, making the picture largely a success.
The only detraction coming to mind is the film’s length. In the final act, there are several spots where you feel a resolution coming, but instead an excuse is found to further draw out Clare’s nightmarish situation in ways that feel forced at times. Despite this criticism, Berlin Syndrome is still a winner of a thriller that provides plenty of pulse-pounding scenes – scenes that are likely to stick with you.
Surprisingly, you’ll notice awkward, situational humor sprinkled about as well. For instance: after several weeks of captivity, Andi says the phrase “I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable” to Clare. By this point, that’s what he’d been doing to Clare a majority of the feature. Tiny moments like this give Berlin Syndrome more personality instead of allowing it to live in its dourness.
You can also appreciate the metaphor of it all. More than once, Andi chastises Clare or other women in his life for “putting on a show” or “throwing themselves at him,” when said woman is only being cordial to him. The behavior Andi displays as a man that is owed something by women and feels superior to them is a regular everyday occurrence in society. That’s controversial to say (for some reason), but I’m glad director Shortland used her platform to emphasize these points – and give us a generally great film around it too.