The most frightening kind of monsters aren’t indestructible or supernatural like Jason or Freddy. Rather, it’s the bogeymen who live among us. Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome capitalizes on examples of real-world paranoia, fears that are particularly associated with women: traveling alone, becoming too involved too quickly with an attractive someone you meet on the street, revealing personal information to the mysterious object of your fling. But as an English teacher charms an Australian woman exploring Germany’s capital, her attraction is understandable. Of course, if you know what the story’s about, at every bit of foreshadowing you think, “Don’t!”
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is an architecture photographer who goes to Berlin partly because of professional interest but mostly, it seems, out of boredom. While she’s wandering the streets, a German man next to her drops some of his things, and they engage in a little chitchat. His name is Andi (Max Riemelt), and a day or so later, she finds him in the library and approaches. This time they talk some more; one of Andi’s many questions is, “Does your mother know you’re here?” (Don’t!) They end up in his apartment for what Clare surely believed would be a limited-night stand. She whispers, “I wish I could stay.”
Careful what you wish for.
The next morning, Andi is long gone by the time Clare gets herself together and leaves—or tries to leave. There’s a bulky bar across the door and no sign of a key. So Clare entertains herself until school’s out and Andi comes home. “Did you lock me in?” she says, laughing. He goes along with the not-a-joke, at least until the days wear on and Clare realizes she’s being imprisoned.
Shortland (2004’s Somersault) and Shaun Grant co-adapted the script from a novel. Despite the subtle sequence of events that result in Clare’s captivity, the writers are careful not to overtly make it seem like her fault. Of course, everyone—especially solo travelers in a foreign country—should keep their wits about them. But Clare had socialized with other strangers without incident, and Riemelt’s Andi appears to be an intelligent, thoughtful non-psychopath. Surely a single woman can indulge in a little romance while on vacation.
And besides one flagrant don’t-go-in-the-basement! moment, Clare is a resourceful captive, knowing when to play nice and how to take advantage of her time alone. There is a period in which it seems as if she’s fallen prey to the title’s play on Stockholm Syndrome. Whether this is ever geniune is unclear.
Cinematographer Germain McMicking largely lights the film as if lights didn’t exist. In many scenes, it’s difficult to make out exactly what’s going on. Along with Bryony Marks’ minimalist score, however, it achieves a feeling of dread. There’s a bit of comic dialogue to ease the perpetual bleakness and unease, such as when Andi comes home to find that Clare has used a chair to try to break through his reinforced windows. “I just bought these chairs,” he calmly says as she looks incredulous.
Palmer, usually a supporting character, and Riemelt carry the film ably, with Riemelt in particular morphing from normal to unhinged as the story—and the ick factor—progresses. Also impressive is the fact that the bit of blood that appears onscreen isn’t needed to convey the depravity of the situation. The end is a bit anticlimactic, but that’s a quibble considering Shortland achieves something rare: making a thriller feel fresh.
Berlin Syndrome opens Friday at AMC Hoffman Center.