Warning: This review contains spoilers
A lone female tourist meets a handsome German schoolteacher in a used bookstore. They swap meaningful glances. He offers her freshly picked strawberries. She accepts. He adorably mangles the English language. She laughs. It sounds like the perfect indie meet-cute — Before Sunrise under the Brandenburg Gate. What could possibly go wrong? The short answer is…everything. Before the week is up she will be his bruised-and-bloodied prisoner.
Directed by Cate Shortland, the Australian filmmaker whose 2004 coming-of-age drama, Somersault, signaled a promising debut, Berlin Syndrome is a nasty piece of business tarted up with a stylish, high-gloss veneer. Like The Collector, Boxing Helena, and Room, it’s a film where we’re forced to watch a female protagonist being tortured and tormented and are supposed to feel “empowered” that she (spoiler alert) survives in the end. But don’t let that avenging outcome fool you, this is not a feminist film. Not by a longshot. It’s lurid exploitation, plain and simple — even if it is made by a director with a fine eye and no shortage of talent.
Teresa Palmer (Lights Out) plays Clare, a shy, soft-spoken Australian backpacker traveling in Berlin to photograph severe, Communist-era East German architecture. Traveling solo, she’s on the hunt for life experience and adventure. And man, does she find that and more when she meets Max Riemelt’s Andi, a mellow, kind-eyed German twentysomething who has a soft spot for Gustav Klimt and looks a bit like the scruffy Belgian movie hunk, Matthias Schoenaerts. A day after their first encounter, they’re back it his place — a dilapidated boho apartment building with peeling walls and slasher-flick lighting where he seems to be the sole resident. The buzzer outside might as well say “The Big Bad Wolf.”
Clare and Andi share their histories as foreplay to an evening of steamy passion. The next morning, he lets her sleep in and goes off to work. Later, when she tries to let herself out, the fortified door is bolted shut and she notices that the windows are triple-paned with unbreakable, soundproof glass. Hmmmm, that can’t be good. Too trusting to be believable, she swallows his excuse when he returns home, apologizing that he thought he’d left a key behind. Anyone in her right mind would hightail it out of Mr. Creepy’s Lair. But Clare doesn’t run. She stays. And before she knows it, she’s his sex-slave captive. Clare is bound spread-eagle to his bare mattress while Andi goes off and teaches English to innocent, unsuspecting high school kids. A sociopath in plain sight.
After a few somewhat clever jolts in the opening third of the film (including a shocker when Clare finds a clump of blonde hair in the shower drain, which makes her realize she’s not his first victim), Shortland spends the next hour putting Palmer through a repetitive loop of attempted escapes that don’t pan out while giving the ominous lower-register piano keys of her film’s composer a workout. A subplot about Andi’s relationship with his sick and withholding father goes nowhere interesting and certainly doesn’t explain how he turned into a monster.
The film’s title, a play on Stockholm Syndrome, in which a captive comes to identify with his or her captor, suggests that Clare will have some psychological turnaround and learn to not only accept her fate, but embrace it. But it’s just a pretentious fake out — a potentially interesting theme left underexplored. The only thing the slightly repellent and overlong Berlin Syndrome has on its mind is putting a trusting woman through a scuzzy hell of sadism for two hours in the name of stylishly art-directed suspense. If those are the kind of cheap thrills you’re after, by all means, have at it. C