Australian director, Cate Shortland, has won great acclaim for her films that largely focus on the female perspective. She is a maker of “women’s films” – but not in the conventional sense. Her post-World War Two coming-of-age drama, Lore, was a highlight of 2012. It was brutal, gritty and punctuated with stunning cinematography. It wasn’t overly dramatic or emotional, it was simply a stark retelling of a story.
I wish I could say the same for her latest effort, Berlin Syndrome. Whilst there is a still a clear love of German architecture, culture and history, the story merely trudges along, with the occasional histrionic outburst. It’s a really disappointing film, as there is clear potential both from the lead actors and the director herself. Sadly, it falls victim to a number of cinematic tropes and clichés.
Teresa Palmer stars as an Australian photojournalist who is wooed by a mysterious Berliner named Andi (Max Riemelt) for a one night stand in his slightly unsettling apartment. I mean, a dead bolted door, locked rooms and reinforced windows is all a bit questionable in the light of day. As they have a post-sex spoon, Palmer’s character of Clare mutters something about “wishing she didn’t have to go.” Not a problem. Because she’s fallen for the local, friendly, neighbourhood psychopath. He literally won’t let her leave.
The film’s title is clearly a play on the actual disorder of Stockholm Syndrome but I’m not sure why – Clare never develops any feelings for her captor. She spends the entire film trying to escape, particularly when a few clues (a broken nail, blonde hair in the drain and a Visit Canada pen) suggest that her Teutonic lover may have previous.
Shortland gets into the plot fairly quickly – Clare meets Andi within the first twenty minutes of the film – but from there on out, the pace really struggles and falters. There are too many shots of Clare locked in the apartment, trying to utilise various household objects to break her way out. The dialogue between the couple is really staid and slow a lot of the time.
The dynamic between Andi and Clare is a big factor in the film’s lack of entertainment. Neither of them genuinely seem attracted to each other and, after a while, Andi seems like he could care less that he has a hostage. Palmer’s attempts at conveying rage, frustration, upset and humiliation largely all sound and look the same. If these two were genuinely at each other’s throats – or had seemed infatuated in the first place – you might buy in to the storyline a bit more.
I think Berlin Syndrome is alleging to be about passion and being consumed by it. Sadly, there is no evidence from either of the lead actors that they feel that way about each other. Towards the middle slump, it doesn’t even feel like Andi is passionate about keeping Clare hostage anymore. And I don’t think that was the idea – I think the acting was just missing the mark.
There are attempts at creating tension through a few menacing looks and shadowy corridors but it never really pulls off properly. After roughly an hour and a half of the hostage situation, the ending feels a bit silly and tacked on as an afterthought. There is no real smooth transition of the plot from Point A to B; it’s a bit all over the place. The film doesn’t have any sense of urgency or drive to push forward. It simply limps from one slightly melodramatic scene to the other.
Having been so moved by Lore, I was really keen to see Berlin Syndrome. Sadly, it was lacking in any real drive and didn’t inspire me to much empathy. If anything, I felt like I was being held hostage.