Female awakenings are at the heart of Australian director Cate Shortland’s cinema, be they of a coming-of-age sort (her 2004 debut Somersault) or of a breaking-free-from-Nazi-indoctrination nature (her 2012 drama Lore). That thematic preoccupation again takes center stage in her third feature, The Berlin Syndrome—an adaptation of Melanie Joosten’s novel about an unexpected fling that goes terribly, chillingly awry. Yet it does so in a way that’s all the more compelling for being more than a bit mysterious, an ambiguity that does much to enhance the suspense of this silky, malevolent thriller.
Shortland is adept at evoking a sense of sensual tangibility, and that’s apparent from the outset of The Berlin Syndrome, in which we glimpse the hands of Clare (Teresa Palmer) hurriedly closing up her bag, exiting a subway train, and emerging out onto the streets of Berlin, where she snaps pictures of towering GDR-era edifices. Clare is fascinated by these structures, staring up at them (often through a camera’s lens) with entranced awe. However, she soon becomes the focus of someone else’s gaze when, the following day, she helps a man pick up the books and carton of strawberries he’s dropped while waiting to cross an intersection. His name is Andi (Max Riemelt), he’s an English teacher, and they soon strike up a friendly conversation. With nowhere to go—given that she’s a single Aussie backpacking around Europe on her own—Clare agrees to accompany him on a daylong stroll, during which time they visit an area of remote houses where, in an endearing mistake, he confuses the word “compensate” for “contemplate.”
That faux pas charms Clare, although Shortland laces their meet-cute moments with fleet but telling warning signs, from Annie playfully donning a children’s wolf mask and snarling at Andi, to Andi casually asking Clare if anyone knows her whereabouts. Though Andi attempts to woo her with a late-night caress of the hair, it’s unsuccessful—until the next day, when Clare abandons her plans to visit Dresden and instead seeks out Andi, their touching hands at a bookstore serving as one of many instances in which The Berlin Syndrome conveys the raw, electric power of physical contact. At a café, he playfully pretends to choke her, and shortly thereafter, they’re back at his place, where in charged close-ups, Clare expresses first trepidation, then fear, then euphoria as Andi—lit (in a recurring visual motif) only by the light shining in through the doorway—flips her over on his bed, takes off her jeans, and pleasures her.
The Berlin Syndrome establishes its scenario with just enough appealing romanticism to make its abduction-saga reveal jarring. Yet it’s what follows that proves more unnerving, as Andi follows through on his prior “jokey” threats to tie Clare to the bed and keep her prisoner while he goes about his days, tending to work and visiting his father. It’s in those latter encounters that Shortland offers some backstory tidbits about her toxic masculine fiend, as Andi’s father questions his son about why he always dates tourists, all as the director cuts back to slow-motion snippets of Andi dragging Clare across his apartment floor by the hair and binding her wrists and ankles atop a mattress that, forebodingly, is covered in plastic. Later, Andi tells his father that he has no interest in visiting with his mother, because years earlier she abandoned them by defecting—a small but significant sign that his modus operandi is rooted, at least in part, in a deep-seated desire to cling tightly (i.e. psychotically) to coveted women lest they leave him forever.
Aided by cinematographer Germain McMicking’s tactile imagery and Jack Hutchings’ rhythmic editing, Shortland proceeds to stage a series of ever-more-harrowing incidents in which Clare, now fully aware that she’s merely one in a series of captives, endeavors to escape, first by using a screwdriver, then a paper clip, and then by confronting some children in the woods during an outing with Andi that, for a pulse-pounding few seconds, appears destined to end in grisly fashion. In each of these scenes, Shortland amplifies tension to its breaking point, only to then diffuse things for a brief instance before slowly ramping the dread back up again. In its purest form, The Berlin Syndrome is a nail-biter of the first order, orchestrated with a mixture of lyricism and efficiency that’s enthralling.
Better still, though, the film—as suggested by its title, a reference to Stockholm Syndrome—captures the blurry relationship between eroticism and danger, inhibition and restraint. Clare’s attraction to Andi is, at least at first, amplified by the buzz of going home with a complete stranger. And once she realizes what he truly is, the push-pull between terror and titillation remains ever-present, if somewhat hazy. This isn’t to say that The Berlin Syndrome somehow endorses the idea that women like Clare go looking for—much less like—such abuse, or deserve what they get at the hands of lunatics. Rather, it’s that Shortland’s latest understands that blood-curdling fear and intoxicating sexual excitement sometimes overlap in illogical, yet intimate, ways. Courtesy of Palmer’s intense performance, which is withdrawn enough to leave such questions about her protagonist’s inner state hanging in the air, it’s a thriller whose genre moves are as precise as its underlying swirl of emotions are enigmatic.