The following review has been published as part of our coverage of the Chicago Critics Film Festival.
Hooking up is fun. It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s all of these things. And not just for the obvious reasons, but for the sense of mystery that slowly evaporates as clothes hit the floor and the morning light eventually floods the bedroom. Skin and scars reveal character, as do the tics that manifest once you’ve encountered the solitude of an empty apartment or closed door. And then there’s this unfamiliar room, filled with photos and books and posters and floorboards, each a key into the psyche of this stranger. It’s exciting because there’s still so much left to learn; it’s scary for those same reasons.
In its early going, Cate Shortland‘s Berlin Syndrome nails this balance of mystery and fear. Clare (Teresa Palmer), a backpacking Australian, is alone and shyly exploring Berlin when she meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a handsome English teacher to whom she feels an intense romantic attraction. He takes her back to his apartment in a barren part of the former East Berlin; there, they make passionate love and laugh and drink wine. When he leaves for work the next morning, Clare realizes she’s locked inside. There’s no key. A mistake? Clare isn’t worried. She takes in his apartment in the daylight, making tea and rifling through his albums and books and photos in pursuit of further insight into this handsome stranger. She’ll get some soon enough, but it won’t be pretty.
Adapted by Shaun Grant and Shortland from Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel of the same name, Berlin Syndrome is at its best in these early scenes, when the threat is still imperceptible, the sort of thing one could ostensibly chalk up to unfounded paranoia. Once it becomes clear that this isn’t the case, the film pivots, allowing us to follow Andi outside as Clare withers away behind locked doors and reams of rope. And though these scenes somewhat undercut the urgency of the situation, that’s also kind of the point. By seeing Andi as more than a mere abductor — he’s an effective teacher, an athlete, and a loving son — we come to understand that he’s no mere sadist; rather, he’s the kind of entitled, angry male that sculpts his own inalterable vision of love with a steely gaze and a clenched fist. He loves Clare (or so he thinks), and as long as she remains under his control, he believes she’ll eventually fall in line.
In this way, Berlin Syndrome functions as an exploration of abusive relationships, ones dictated not just by physical abuse, but also by emotional manipulation. One of the film’s more painful elements is in watching the lines blur for Clare; as time goes on, a dependency sets in that finds her both terrified of Andi and invested in his emotional well-being. It’s messy, complicated stuff, and Palmer and Riemelt both deserve praise for navigating emotions that ignite and implode on a hair trigger. Shortland, too, brings an empathetic perspective to her adaptation of Joosten’s work. Clare’s folly isn’t in going home with a stranger, nor is it in not discerning his threat sooner. Instead, Shortland uses the situation to explore societal power dynamics, especially around the ways in which women are conditioned to be polite in a patriarchal society. “Why don’t you just leave?” is too reductive a question in abusive situations.
While there’s much to chew on from a psychological perspective, the journey through it can sometimes feel relentlessly dispiriting. As one might expect with material such as this, levity is in short supply. The pulpier elements — Clare’s stabs at escape, the growing intrigue of whether or not Andi’s secrets will be exposed — aren’t handled with the grace of the film’s more ephemeral qualities. At nearly two hours, the film’s climax and catharsis doesn’t quite earn the rigor of the journey there.
There’s resonance in that as well, though. Berlin Syndrome isn’t a sensational film; the emotions on display are warped and scarred, but rooted in identifiable desires. In some ways, this makes their impact that much more ingrained. To be lonely, some say, is a fate worse than death. Berlin Syndrome might make you second guess that statement.