There’s a phobia for everything, you just might not know the word for it. We all know a fear of spiders is called arachnophobia. A fear of heights is known as acrophobia. There’s even a fear/inability to use a public bathroom, called paruresis. Every fear has a root in reality with some traumatic experience, so they may seem irrational to us, but are crippling to others. The intensity of Berlin Syndrome will successfully reinforce any hodophobe’s fear of traveling, trigger any claustrophobic person’s fear of closed spaces and confinement, and ultimately reassure any agoraphobe’s decision never to leave their house.
Cate Shortland directs this cautionary tale with an attention to detail that makes it both horrifying and immersive. The visual aesthetic is minimalist and refined, depicting beautiful, natural landscapes and cityscapes to emphasize freedom. This is the perfect counterbalance to the rest of the film that takes place in a cold, confined quarter whose tight camerawork perfectly reflects the feelings of isolation and helplessness, and channels the fear of claustrophobia buried deep inside each of us. As with any effective suspense/thriller, there is a tonal shift that happens after the film has lured the character (and us) into a false sense of security. Shortland succeeds in building up the film up to that point but is especially adept at maintaining the tense sense of dread until the film’s satisfying climax.
The only problem is that the film’s slow, early pacing requires a little patience to get through. We are taken on a meandering tour of Berlin, with several moments that feel like the film is going to become a coming-of-age story like we’ve seen in so many indie films before. In a way, the story does become a transformative journey, but not until after our character parties with the locals and enjoys a quaint bookstore or two. The setup is as wandering as it is necessary, which could explain the play on words the film’s title is referring to. Like Stockholm syndrome, Berlin Syndrome captures you and holds you captive with its steady start. The longer the film goes on, the more you fall for its charm until it reaches a certain point and you fall in love with it.
The suspenseful atmosphere Shortland creates sets the tone for the film, but it is the story itself that keeps the film grounded and authentically terrifying. Shaun Grant adapts Melanie Joosten’s novel with great care and respect. While the character of Clare is the clear victim of this story, at no point does she fall into the horror trope of the dimwitted victim. Our empathy for the character exists in great part because of Clare, aside from a few innocent tourist-traveling-alone faux pas in the beginning, makes every intelligent attempt to free herself from her captor. That makes Clare relatable and her entire situation much more frightening, especially if you’re a female who travels alone often.
Although the cast is small, it works to the favor of the film as it explores an intimate look at our two main characters. Grant uses dialogue and casual interactions to explore the backstory of our characters. While much of Clare’s character development rests on the acting ability of actress, the story as a whole succeeds through the examination of Andi’s psyche and his day to day activities. The exploration of Andi toes a delicate line of making him sympathetic enough of a character to where we understand his motivation and may slightly empathize with him, but never forced enough to convince the viewer that the film is trying to justify his actions.
Teresa Palmer is a versatile actress whose roles tend to be disproportionate to her talent. She has shown us her range in films like Warm Bodies and, most recently, Lights Out. In an apparent trend, Palmer seems to shine in films that skew more towards the horror genre, and Berlin Syndrome continues that streak. She takes a character that starts off as a blank slate in every way and slowly adds layers of depth through her actions, interactions and examination of her thought-process. Palmer creates an emotional complexity to her character, showing vulnerability during intimate moments, but also playing a character within her character as a way to survive her dire situation. Her chemistry with co-star Max Riemelt (Sense8) is arresting, letting their relationship change from genuinely endearing to utterly unsettling in such a subtle way that before even we realize it, we’ve also been made a prisoner.