GFF17: Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome

Five years since her last film (the critically acclaimed Lore), Cate Shortland returns with another German set-project, Berlin Syndrome. This tale of an Australian backpacker in Berlin is a masterfully crafted exercise in tension as it examines the relationship between captor and captive.

Shaun Grant adapts Melanie Joosten’s novel which sees German English teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt) who develops an obsessive relationship with Australian tourist, Clare (Teresa Palmer). Clare soon finds herself confined to Andi’s isolated apartment.

Whilst Berlin Syndrome can visit similar territory to classic erotic thrillers of the nineties (Fatal Attraction, Sleeping with the Enemy), Shortland gives the subgenre a grimy European update. The urban Berlin setting complete with derelict flat blocks and hidden courtyards makes for an unsettling canvas to parallel the isolation, torment and abandonment experienced by the captive Clare.

Yet, Berlin Syndrome lures us in with a quiet eroticism and in doing so flips our preconceptions about these characters. Clare is skittish and unsettled, whilst Andi is charming, athletic and handsome – yet this masquerade is flipped as Shortland delves into Grant’s layered narrative. Like Claire, we are lured in by the captivating German who appears to be the stable influence she craves across the Atlantic. However, Grant’s narrative tightly coils unveiling darker motivations and immersing us in Claire’s newfound claustrophobia and terror. Berlin Syndrome’s narrative feels authentic in exploring how someone would act when placed in this unnatural situation, reverting to a primal survival instinct.

There is more to Berlin Syndrome than the expected tense hostage thriller genre trappings and the film attempts to dig a little deeper into the psyches of its lead characters. Andi’s relationship with his parents and abandonment issues add some sympathy, whilst the balance of power between Clare and Andi continually feels tweaked and readdressed creating a Polanski-esque sense of tension and continually adapting characterisation. However, one cannot deny that the strengths of Shortland’s film ultimately lie in the nerve-shredding bouts of tension through attempted escapes and the shifts in power/control. Shortland casts an artistic eye of the proceedings with Berlin Syndrome straddling the lines between erotic, unpleasant and thrilling. Palmer, who for much of the film is alone in the apartment, is sublime and channels a wide-eyed fear through a complex, understated performance. Riemelt is captivating in this unsettling turn, managing to add some degree of sympathy to the morally repugnant Andi.

Shortland’s first feature in half a decade does not disappoint. Crafted with a masterful tension and providing a narrative that is both complex and primal in its themes, Berlin Syndrome is exceptional.

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