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Much has been made in film of the horrors of Stockholm Syndrome, a condition that sees hostages form an unhealthy allegiance with their captors, some famously even joining their cause. It is an oppressively traumatic experience that delves deep into some terrifying psychological fears, and in movies have made for some truly chilling experiences.
Berlin Syndrome pulls no punches in portraying the descent into madness the syndrome can incur, bleakly examining the harrowing relationship that forms between two people who meet randomly on the street. One is amateur photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer), roaming the city taking pictures of architecture as she backpacks through Europe. Seasoned by the experience yet still naive to the dangers, she strikes up a conversation with the other, Andi (Max Riemelt), a handsome, young native with whom she takes an instant interest. After an especially emotionally and sexually fulfilling one-night stand, she finds herself unable to pull away, to which he repays her by locking her in his apartment, behind unbreakable glass, and putting her through a tormented metamorphosis that manipulates her slowly into his own personal possession. It is the stuff of nightmares.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Berlin Syndrome is a paralyzing chiller as it cleanly avoids the tropes of the standard kidnap and horror torture genre. There is no physically violent taking of the victim, no panel van and attack, but rather a slow burn of realization as Clare comes to understand the worst is true when she simply can’t leave, and mores so, that she is not the first. Shortland generates remarkable tension in the build-up, giving Clare only a bit of depth as she gets established in the first thirty minutes of the story, a loner with no strong immediate connections. In fact, meeting Andi feels frightfully authentic as we witness her willingness to mingle with other strangers earlier, and there is a certain comfort in her early conversations with him, which initially plays like a touching romance drama, though it becomes anything but. As time passes, Clare’s spiraling into needfully passive participant in the ordeal is a tragedy all its own.
By no means a graphic horror–the film is mostly psychological in its torture–there are moments not easy to watch. Clare’s submission is one of stages, and Palmer is shattering in the role, giving a fearless, almost unhinged performance that plots her transformation from confident outgoing young woman to a wild-child like creature acquiescing to a master, and as the months and seasons pass, she folds in on herself, seemingly devolving to an almost primitive state. It’s a monumental step in an already impressive acting career. Riemelt is also very convincing, and there’s something to be said about how his performance twists our own feelings about him as the film moves forward, with Andi bringing Clare gifts and tending to her like a precious pet. That, outside all of this, he has a normal life, makes it all the more unsettling.
Berlin Syndrome takes its time, Shortland delivering a caustic experience layered in long moments of silence mixed with extreme terror. Bryony Marks‘ haunting score is menacing and yet uplifting when need be. This is certainly a troubling film, with perverse sexual overtones and female subjugation that are naturally distressing, yet it pulses with intensity and courage. We stay with Clare, and much like Vicky in the recent Hounds of Love, we wonder with great fear if she will survive.
Movie description: Berlin Syndrome is a 2017 drama about a young woman traveling in Europe who first finds romance and then terror in the company of man she meets in Berlin.
Director(s): Cate Shortland
Actor(s): Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Lucie Aron