There are plenty of horror movies featuring aliens, ghouls, and masked slashers, but I appreciate it most when the genre finds terror in the real world. So I was extremely curious to see Australian director Cate Shortland’s latest film, Berlin Syndrome — even more so after Netflix picked the movie up the week before Sundance even started.
The film stars Teresa Palmer (Lights Out) as Clare, a young woman visiting Germany who crosses paths with an aw-shucks English teacher named Andi (Sense8’s Max Riemelt). Andi, you see, is a nice guy, one of those fellas that seems charming and harmless, but who secretly holds some perverse ideas when it comes to emotional entitlement and what role consent plays in a relationship.
After a brief romantic fling, Clare wakes up to realize that Andi’s locked her inside his apartment against her will, and so begins a terrifying battle for dominance and escape.
WHAT’S THE GENRE?
You could just call this a thriller, but if you want to get really specific it’s the latest in the now-popping Woman Gets Locked Up In A Room By A Deranged Male Assailant And Needs To Escape genre.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Clare is an Australian traveling through Europe trying to find some direction in her life, and spends time in Berlin taking photographs of the city’s architecture. Andi strikes up a conversation with her at an intersection, and he’s as disarming as they come. He offers her strawberries from a local garden, charms her when he forgets the occasional English word or two, and when the opportunity for a brief kiss appears at the end of the night... well, Andi would never presume to take advantage. But eventually a romance sparks, and they spend a couple of days wishing she didn’t have to leave. It’s all perfectly storybook, until Clare realizes that Andi has actually trapped her, with no intention of letting her go. To make matters worse, Clare discovers he apparently had another woman trapped in the apartment under similar circumstances in the past, but she’s nowhere to be found.
Over the ensuing months their power dynamic shifts back and forth. He legitimately thinks that strapping Clare to a bed represents a real, consensual relationship (he refers to her as “my girlfriend” when talking to his father). His warped perspective actually gives Clare ammunition to use against him at some key moments, but at the same time she becomes so dependent on him for survival — and all human contact — that a Stockholm-like bond does form between the two.
WHAT'S IT REALLY ABOUT?
Abusive relationships. What’s fascinating is how Shortland uses the framework of a genre movie to explore how abusers manipulate their victims into a state of emotional codependence (the title of the movie doesn’t riff off Stockholm syndrome for nothing).
However, Berlin Syndrome also highlights the resilience of strong, powerful women, and points to female solidarity as a critical factor in breaking cycles of abuse.
BUT IS IT ANY GOOD?
This film is tough to watch — you’re basically signing up to see a horrible person do horrible things and systematically break down another human being for two hours.
Palmer’s performance is honest and brave (particularly given that she’s often just performing scenes alone), and Shortland deftly switches between locked-door thriller mode and more nuanced character work. A storyline focused on Andi and his father feels like a drag on the film at times — it provides some shading into what makes him tick, but never enough to justify the detours. More than anything else, it’s the back and forth between Palmer and Riemelt that makes the film worth watching.
WHAT SHOULD IT BE RATED?
What should you rate a movie with hand stabbing, finger breaking, crowbar head-smashing, nudity, explicit sex scenes, and a creeper that likes leering at a female high school student during PE class? “R,” you say? Okay, then “R” it should be.
HOW CAN I ACTUALLY WATCH IT?
On your computer! On your phone! On your TV! Basically anywhere you watch Netflix, which is expected to release the film sometime this year. The service has been on an acquisitions tear at film festivals the last few years, particularly focusing on intriguing genre work (the moody I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House was one of my favorites at TIFF last year, and Netflix will also be distributing The Discovery from this year’s Sundance). Berlin Syndrome lines up nicely with those ambitions. The movie is also getting a theatrical release ahead of its Netflix debut courtesy of Vertical Entertainment, with the company said to be targeting May as a potential release date.