By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
The problems of travelling abroad are brought to the surface once more in the new Australian film Berlin Syndrome, but despite its arthouse trappings, this is nothing more than another hokey thriller, frustratingly bereft of tension and substance.
The story centres on Clare (Teresa Palmer), a young Aussie who has dropped everything to backpack around Europe, hoping to find out who she really is as a person. Timid and introverted, Clare seems uncomfortable around strangers, and finds it hard to relax among her exotic surroundings. Currently in Berlin, Clare enjoys photographing her environment, and it is during one of these creative walks that she meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a local high school teacher. The two instantly make a connection, and it isn’t long before they end up at Andi’s rather isolated and rundown apartment, where a night of passion ensues.
The next morning Andi has already left for work, so Clare decides to depart, but discovers that the front door has been locked, preventing her from leaving. The windows are fused shut, so Clare is forced to wait for Andi to return, who appears surprised when told by his guest that she was unable to exit the apartment. Putting it down to forgetting to leave her the spare key, Clare stays one more night, but when the same thing happens again, alarm bells begin to ring. Clare’s suspicions are confirmed when she finds out that the sim card to her cell phone has been taken, making Clare come to the realisation that she is now a prisoner.
Berlin Syndrome walks a path we’ve definitely been down before. The plight of the protagonist who is chased after by an obsessive admirer is familiar territory, but if well-handled can be something truly unsettling, such as the fine 1965 thriller The Collector, starring Terence Stamp, Samantha Eggar, and directed by William Wyler. A more recent example is the Japanese film Himeanole (2016), which is both terrifyingly plausible and graphically confronting.
As the story continues to play out, more movies come to mind. Andi’s dream of wanting to create the perfect relationship has echoes of Joseph Ruben’s taut thriller The Stepfather (1987), while the clinical imprisonment of Clare by her captor reminded me of Michael (2011), an Austrian drama helmed by Michael Haneke protégé Markus Schleinzer.
But where these films were intriguing and suspenseful, Berlin Syndrome is ineffectual and inert, never allowing the audience to properly empathise with Clare and the horrifying situation she has found herself in. Even allowing for Clare’s naivety, there are moments early on that demonstrate Andi’s clinging and isolated behaviour, and the building where he lives looks like something out of Brad Anderson’s Session 9.
A distinct lack of character development is a major factor why the whole endeavour becomes so uninvolving, with Clare and Andi never moving past their initial set-up. This makes director Cate Shortland’s padded treatment of the already thin material all the more protracted. It also drains any form of dread and unease from proceedings.
The screenplay by Shaun Grant (The Snowtown Murders), based on the 2011 novel by Melanie Joosten, falls back on B-grade formula far too often, and rolls out almost every thriller cliché during its utterly routine finale.
Palmer, who worked with renowned film-makers Terrence Malick (Knight of Cups) and Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), as well as co-starring in the delightful zombie comedy Warm Bodies (2013), is unable to rise above the flimsy script. Overdoing the wide-eyed innocent act, her appearance and mannerisms seem to be modelled on Kristen Stewart, to the point where you wonder if the script passed the Twilight star’s desk at some point. Riemelt can do nothing with a one-dimensional role, and even a subplot involving his father (Matthias Habich) fails to generate any interest.
Technically the film is handsomely crafted, and credit must go to cinematographer Germain McMicking (Partisan, Holding the Man) for his strikingly subdued images.
Berlin Syndrome certainly wants to be more than just a thriller, but a weak script, coupled with sluggish direction and dull performances, ruins any chance of generating something that is filled with deeper meaning and metaphors.