Every traveller’s worst nightmare – Aussie backpacker Clare (Teresa Palmer), following a brief fling with Berlin local Andi (Max Riemelt) and visit to his home discovers that he has no intention of letting her leave.
The bare bones of the premise, based here on the novel by Melanie Joosten, won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen the likes of Misery or the more recent Room, though Clare’s predicament is notable in that she is largely not confined in a manner to which movie-goers may be better accustomed; relatively free to roam about the large expanse of Andi’s apartment, itself situated in an upmarket area of east Berlin.
The feature’s title a play on the more familiar Stockholm Syndrome, almost all of the film’s dramatic appeal derives from the question of just how Clare views her captor following the initial shock of imprisonment as her daily goings-on succumb to a morbid regularity. Buoyed by the very apparent metaphor of Berlin itself and the city’s fraught history, the spacious, largely abandoned eastern apartment complex (partially emblematic of the ever-evolving Capital) evokes very recent memories of just what life was like in the GDR, so close yet seemingly insurmountably distant from a very different life, as well questions of resistance and subjection all too prevalent for Clare.
Such a scenario would not be engaging cinema but for the consummate performances of the two leads, best of all Riemelt who goes about his day job as an English teacher while nonchalantly dismissing Clare’s protestations when she first discovers she cannot leave. Andi’s gently telling Clare on their first night together that no one can hear her, one of a number of chilling sequences in the film, amongst them a more violent scene involving a screwdriver, furthers Berlin Syndrome through a dexterous focus on unpacking the two characters rather than simply relying on dramatic flourishes.
Berlin Syndrome is unusual amongst its thematic predecessors in that it affords about as much concentration on the film’s captor as it’s victim, engagedly exploring much more of Andi’s backstory than Clare’s, of whom the audience is forced to speculate as to much of her background. From the outset clearly a person with a none too idyllic past seeking new experiences and contact; resting alone on a rooftop after her fellow backpackers have departed, she proves a tragic target for her tormentor.
The interplay between the two and the setting itself resoundingly compelling, the screenwriters appear intent on testing Clare’s resolve at every juncture, frequently putting her, and Andi, in situations which dispel any speculation about Clare’s intentions or status with her captor. There are a few scenes, largely non-sequiturs inserted into the action, which elaborate on the unique scenario in a genuinely intriguing way, though these moments are the exception rather than the rule. These instances played out across a longer stretch of the film or forgoing some of the more obviously dramatic sequences where Clare or Andi are forced to confront the other might have better furthered the premise’s natural tension in the build-up to Berlin Syndrome’s dramatic conclusion.
Berlin Syndrome is in cinemas now