Berlin Syndrome

Year: 2017
Production Co: Aquarius Films
Director: Cate Shortland
Writer: Cate Shortland
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt

I hadn't heard the name Cate Shortland since way back in 2004 with Australian romantic drama Somersault. It starred Sam Worthington and Abbie Cornish before they were globally famous and won every Australian film award there was even though it was as boring as watching paint dry because there was absolutely nothing else out that year.

Berlin Syndrome isn't all that much more exciting, but at least – being a thriller – there's a plot. The only thing left to see in watching the movie is whether Shortland is interested enough in the concept and story to not overshadow the proceedings with style.

Thankfully she mostly does, and the film is tense enough to keep you interested throughout. Brisbane backpacker and photography buff Claire (Teresa Palmer) is in Berlin seeing the sights and drinking the city in when she meets handsome Andi (Max Riemelt). The pair hit it off, talking in cafes and musty bookstores, walking the back streets and dancing in clubs until Claire finds herself back at his place, a dingy, unkempt apartment block that seems to be otherwise deserted (and which she's frankly an idiot for accompanying him to).

Of course the worst happens, and the next morning after he's gone to his job as a schoolteacher, Claire finds herself locked in. She doesn't worry as much as she should (or as much as you will), trying to laugh it off when he gets home like he's made the honest mistake he claims, and they share a pleasant evening together again.

The next morning her SIM card is gone out of her phone, her lucky necklace is missing from around her neck and the key he's left for her doesn't open the door (or the enormous steel bar across it that should have been a red flag) at all. When Andi comes home again, brandishing flowers and stuff to make them dinner, Claire once again tries to give him the room to admit either that he's stupid or something's fishy – asking him gently where her neckalce is, where her phone is, why the key didn't work, etc.

We explode into the second act on a dime as she snaps, screaming and striking out at him, demanding to know why he won't let her go, and Claire finally realises she's the prisoner of a psychoapth.

Over the course of what seems like months, she tries various nail-biting methods of escape that will only get her in more trouble – or worse – with her captor if she's found out. At the same time we get more of an insight into what kind of man he is. Terminally icy with his colleagues at work and put upon but his ailing father, Andi might just be a garden variety abuser who wants to feel some semblance of control in his life, the girl locked in his crappy flat his only means of it.

It all builds to a low key climax that to be honest left me a little bit cold. After so much paranoia and terror you'd think even a gunshot or golf club around the head would be in order, but whether it was budgetary or Shortland's just not into violence, it doesn't involve anything more jarring or impactful than the collusion of a student in Andi's class and the well timed locking of a couple of doors.

Shortland's too good a director for the film not to have a distinct sense of style, all muted and wintry with primary colours bled out of the frame. At least, she's a better director than a storyteller – a vision without much of a script behind it gave us Somersault but the result when there's an actual story like there is here is far more enjoyable.

And of course, Palmer is a delight in any arthouse film because you just know she's going to get her gear off.

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