Cate Shortland, the Australian director of the chillingly captivating Berlin Syndrome, shows us the darker side of one of the key Australian rites of passage – backpacking across Europe. It may well give you cause to reconsider what you plan to do on your gap year.
We meet our young Australian backpacker, Clare (Teresa Palmer), arriving in Berlin, where she meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a German English teacher, and the two embark on a passionate and obsessive relationship. Both express their desire for the experience not to end, though Andi takes this to the extreme when Clare wakes up one morning and finds she is unable to leave the apartment.
Throughout the first act, Shortland lays the groundwork superbly for what is to come. Sweeping wide shots and an almost celebration of space, freedom and youth are then swallowed up by the internal nature of Andi’s apartment. Here, whispered and innocent phrases seemed laced with danger and the sound mix with its emphasis on locks, doors and windows, which subdue the noise and safety of the outside world. This all combines to form a confronting effect. Something just feels wrong…
…And when that door doesn’t open, something clearly is wrong. The dawning realisation on Clare’s face, followed by the controlled, planned and concerning calm aggression of Andi, crash together to expose the shrinking reality of the world that Clare now finds herself in.
As the film progresses, Clare’s desperation grows. Shortland embraces this and ratchets up the tension, toying with our horror sensibilities and subverts expectations at almost every turn. The script is concise and relatable, with Clare acting as an authentic audience surrogate. She does what you would do, which in turn, makes the tension even more unbearable in places. So much so that my screening room was filled with gasps and shrieks sandwiched between an eerie breath-holding silence.
Palmer continues her impressive rise and carries the film on her shoulders, which is no mean feat considering she is mostly acting alone. Nothing is glamorised, if anything, the opposite is true. Palmer, with her haunted expressions and weakened beginnings of acceptance, keeps you connected and deeply invested in the immediacy of events.
However, this is Shortland’s film through and through. Her direction is nothing short of masterful. Her use of space, pacing and stark visual contrasts will keep your eyes glued to the screen, though there are times you may not want them to be. This is a film made for a small confined cinema, to be watched and experienced amongst strangers in the dark.
Berlin Syndrome is an intelligent and emotionally complex thriller/horror which will lock you into its own world. It is also another example of a powerful, yet predatory, Australian film complete with an Australian female director and lead actor. This highlights that Australian films need not be confined to these shores, yet need to be supported by people who are.