Following the critical success of her previous films Somersault and Lore, director Cate Shortland has returned with her third, and arguably most divisive, film yet: Berlin Syndrome. And where those first two films probed a multitude of themes such as teenage sexuality and innocence lost, her latest film explores human depravation and psychosis without much consideration for the audience.
The story follows Clare (Teresa Palmer), an Australian tourist backpacking in Germany who is befriended by a young German man, Andi (Max Riemelt) and finds herself swept up in a night of romance and passion. With a comfortable place to stay, and a holiday romance to embrace, she agrees to stay at his apartment, but soon finds herself locked inside with no way out. Those happy butterflies in her stomach turn to knots as she realises her grim predicament. Unable to escape and not strong enough to overpower Andi, Clare is subjected to a new life of repeated torture, rape and sadistic mind games. And so it is, Berlin Syndrome, a callous – albeit artistic – engagement with misogamy, bondage and general wretchedness.
Shortland’s first two films were well measured and offered various layers of texture, and while their overall impact wasn’t exactly “entertaining”, they nourished the audience with thought-provoking concepts and themes. They are proof that she is an excellent filmmaker, which makes Berlin Syndrome all the more frustrating. There simply doesn’t seem to be a point to any of it. If Shortland is attempting to make some kind of feminist statement, then the message is lost on me, and if she is making a genuine attempt to examine the minds of the captive and captor, then very little energy has been applied. The film never digs deep into either of the characters’ stories and chooses to focus on the basic premise itself…ie, a girl in a room and a guy who violates her.
What Berlin Syndrome does offer is a strong production design with an affectively foreboding atmosphere, as well as two incredibly brave lead performances. Both Palmer and Riemelt deliver fearless and contentious turns, and command the screen with a powerful counter-balance of innocence and malevolence. Palmer is particularly good as she takes her character into places that some actresses would consider as being too vulnerable. Both of them are confined to what is essentially a one-location story, and with little to actually do within that space, they perform their guts out in an attempt to find even a smidgeon of purpose within the narrative.
Berlin Syndrome does for Germany what Hostel did for Slovakia. What it doesn’t comprehend is that for all of the vulgarity and depravity in Hostel, that film relished in its own carnage; a frivolous exploitation film with a heavy emphasis placed upon the tropes of the genre. Sadly, Berlin Syndrome takes itself too seriously and doesn’t have any particular commentary to tell. It doesn’t flirt with conventions, nor does it seek to appease the viewer. Distinction can be taken from the film’s technical aptitude, and praise should be heaped upon its lead actors (giving this review an additional star in its rating), but as far as being a fulfilling cinema experience, it fails.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10