The problem with films that chronicle captivity is that there’s really only two ways they can go: the victim breaks free, or they don’t. The trick is making the journey worthwhile. Cate Shortland’s “Berlin Syndrome” packs plenty of twists into its overinflated 116-minute runtime, and most of them are enough to recommend the “Somersault” filmmaker’s latest crack at satisfying, female-driven cinema.
Bolstered by a strong performance from Teresa Palmer (who only gets better with each role, and seems happy to mix things up when it comes time to pick them), “Berlin Syndrome” doesn’t break much new ground in the genre, but it’s certainly a worthy entry into it.
Aussie tourist Clare (Palmer) is starry-eyed from the start, arriving in Berlin with nothing but a hiker’s pack and a serious desire to explore. The Brisbane native has fled from down under with a nebulous plan to travel around Europe and indulge her photographic passions, and she’s in Berlin to snap shots of the city’s various buildings from the short-lived GDR era. Clare is a little bit lonely, so when a handsome stranger strikes up a conversation with her on the street, she goes for it.
Like many mistakes that Clare commits during the course of “Berlin Syndrome,” it’s an entirely understandable one, but one that can only be recognized in retrospect. Shortland laces plenty of foreshadowing into her feature, most of it crisply created and free of the kind of dumb-dumb tropes that often pop up in thrillers of its ilk.
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Andi (Max Riemelt) is a nice guy, a high school English teacher who takes Clare around the city and seems genuinely interested in her life (it’s funny how quickly “getting to know you” questions can turn nefarious, but Clare learns that far too late). The pair spark to each other, and their instant attraction inevitably leads back to Andi’s spacious apartment in a seemingly abandoned video. Have the internal alarms gone off yet?
“No one will hear you,” Andi whispers lustily to Clare as the pair have sex for the first time, a genuinely erotic affair that will later feel absolutely horrifying upon further reflection, mostly when Andi says that exact same thing in an entirely different context. The next morning, Andi heads off to work, leaving Clare behind in his locked-up-tight apartment. Initially, she thinks it’s an innocent mistake (hey, the guy needs that huge bar on his door, he does live alone in this massive building in a dodgy neighborhood all by himself, right?). It’s not.
Like the Melanie Joosten novel from which screenwriter Shaun Grant adapted the film’s script, “Berlin Syndrome” uses both Clare and Andi’s perspectives to tell the story, flipping between Clare’s increasingly perverse captivity (which Palmer breathes live into without resorting to cheap responses) and Andi’s oddly normal exterior life. While structuring the film in this manner opens up the world of “Berlin Syndrome” —”Room” this is not — it does little to add to our understanding of Andi, and even less to make him read as sympathetic.
As the stakes are upped, Shortland doles out well-earned scares and shocking moments of brutal, bloody violence that keep up the momentum until the film’s midway mark, when its nearly two-hour running time starts to become unmanageable. Grant’s screenplay builds in starts and stops, potential escapes and plenty of icky details, but those twists deflate what should be a far tighter, tension-packed experience.
Still, Shortland serves up something that’s got plenty of bite to it, and Palmer gladly tears into it. Just trim this one down a bit.
“Berlin Syndrome” premiered in World Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Vertical Entertainment will release it later this year.