Teresa Palmer delivers a career-defining performance as a tourist held captive in Cate Shortland’s artful thriller.
Our introduction to Teresa Palmer’s central protagonist, Clare, is an authentic one. Wide-eyed, and heavy-footed, she steps off a subway train and into the abyss. Her new world is one of liberation; an exciting, uncharted landscape just waiting to be explored. Her backpacking Australian tourist – a keen photographer, with a passion for architecture – wanders the bustling streets of the titular location, and burrows her nose in the many books lining the local library’s shelves. She has a shyness and delicacy which is immediately noticed by a handsome passer-by, Andi (Max Riemelt); an English teacher at a local high school, with whom she develops a rapid and intense attraction for.
Australian director Cate Shortland (Lore) brilliantly establishes a duel sensation of mystery and fear from the get-go with Berlin Syndrome; a perceptive, fiendishly smart domestic thriller, rendered with arthouse sensibilities. Her film ruthlessly examines character, environment, and motive throughout – shining a sobering light on the care-free mentality which so many seem to occupy. Clare’s reasons for visiting Germany are vague to say the least, as if she just fancies a change of scenery; suffice to say such a decision is briskly regretted following a heated one-night stand with Andi.
Hooking up is fun. It’s exciting, dangerous, animalistic. Shortland nails (no pun intended…) the hot-blooded urge which compels the duo to link, and things seem pretty swell the morning after. Clothes remain upon the floor, and shame stays firmly at bay. Clare only becomes somewhat inquisitive when she is unable to exit Andi’s apartment – one creepily located among a derelict tower block; lined with abandoned shells – after he heads to work. She thinks its just a mistake; that he forgot to leave her a key. But then it happens again. And again. Pretty soon her sense of liberation becomes one of confinement, as she is cruelly held captive against her will.
Palmer’s full-bodied and piercing performance is a career-best. She builds a character of densely woven layers, who is able to shift from sexually progressive to quiveringly fearful with a finger-snap. The physicality of such a role would be taxing for many-an-actor, but Palmer completely gives herself over to Clare; wearing her many scars and anxieties with palpable feeling. Sizeable portions of Shortland’s film force the actress into isolation, and she simply thrives. Paired with her distinctly ambiguous direction – shots composed with ethereal haunting – the passage of time within the prison are just as captivating as those explosive and passionate with Andi.
Riemelt is of equally impressive quality here, too. Shaun Grant’s slyly observed script allows the audience to build a rapport with Clare’s captor, despite clearly defining him as the narrative’s antagonist. We see him in multiple lights – a kindly gentleman; an educator; a son to an ailing father; a sociopath – all of which are beautifully controlled by the young performer. Viewers are treated to a villain of complexity and nuance, something largely void largely void in Hollywood studio filmmaking, and Andi is all the richer for it. He is desperate for that “first meeting” feeling to never expire; for his fiery first intimacy with Clare to still burn feverishly.
There is much to chew on here from a psychological standpoint. The film poses ominous questions about trust, companionship, and sexuality; all of which will linger in the mind long after curtain call. It’s pulpier elements – the occasional splash of startling violence, the “will he, won’t he” mentality as Andi’s stability becomes further unhinged – aren’t quite as graceful, but Shortland’s tactile approach ensures the entirety of its 116 minute runtime remain purposeful.
Subverting expectations corner after corner, and refusing to play by the restrictive rules of genre, the Australian filmmaker underpins suffering with Machiavellian intent. Berlin Syndrome is chilling and engrossing cinema which grips tighter than a vice.
Berlin Syndrome arrives in UK cinemas and VOD via Curzon Home Cinema from 9th June.