A single woman's horror story

Berlin Syndrome

Directed by Cate Shortland

Written by Shaun Grant, based on a novel by Melanie Joosten

116 minutes, rated MA 15+

3.5 stars

Berlin Syndrome is a modern horror story, meaning that the terror comes from the realisation that this could happen to any of us. Cate Shortland’s first two movies, Somersault and Lore, had dark psychological elements, so this is not such a stretch. She builds here on a novel by young Melbourne writer Melanie Joosten, and from her own experience of Berlin – a city that evokes both fear and fascination.

Clare, a young Brisbane woman (Teresa Palmer) arrives as a backpacker, looking for the kind of experiences she has read about in books. She wanders the streets, looking at art books, photographing old German Democratic Republic buildings, feeling a little overwhelmed, as some Australians do in the old world. At an intersection, she meets a young German man with an open face. Andi (Max Riemelt), a high school teacher, is handsome, charming, not too fast. Clare is looking for romance, but not with a pickup artist. She runs into him a day later in a bookstore she visited before. They go sightseeing, then back to his apartment in a decrepit building in the east, where he is the only resident. As in all horror worth the name, we’re wanting to yell ‘don’t go!’ but Clare is drawn to him.

Shortland moves us gently through these first scenes. The love-making is tender; she feels safe and passionate, able to open herself to the experience. She’s looking to grow, and shooting real estate photographs in Brisbane wasn’t doing that for her. The next morning, she finds he has locked her in by mistake, while he goes to work. It takes another day, another lie, before she realises there is no mistake.

The syndrome of the title could be read as being about him, rather than her. We know how the captive falls in love with the captor in the Stockholm version, but Shortland is interested here in how Berlin’s history may have warped Andi’s experience. We learn more about his life than we normally would in this kind of thriller: we see him in class and visiting his elderly, sick father; we see him buying groceries. She may be throwing chairs at the doubly-reinforced windows, trying to pick locks with a piece of wire, but he’s in the kitchen crushing basil for a home-made pesto, playing happy families. For her, Berlin’s GDR architecture is a quirk of history; for him it’s a reminder of his disappointment. His father wants him to visit his mother but he refuses; she defected and left us, remember?

Even so, the film stands or falls on Teresa Palmer’s performance in a challenging role. If this were a conventional horror movie she would be Jodi Foster in Panic Room, a woman warrior, but Clare is more recognisably like us. She’s vulnerable, scared, desperate. Alone in the apartment for months on end, Palmer has to take us carefully through the stages of her terror – and she does it beautifully. It’s an internal performance but it lacks nothing in subtlety or control.

The same is largely true of Shortland’s confident, calm direction, at least for the first 90 minutes. She has always been good at creating lonely drama, related it to her central character’s mood. That was true of the two young women in her earlier features. This one delivers great tension and genuine moments of terror as well. More problematic is the finale, in which loose ends remain untied; we have to make great leaps to figure out what happened.

It’s not so much unsatisfying as curious. Shortland rushes the ending, when she has been so methodical with everything else. Walking the line between full-tilt horror and a more nuanced, female-centric inversion of the genre does give the film its meaning, but you still have to tighten all the nuts and bolts.