Mark Reviews Movies

Berlin Syndrome


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Cate Shortland

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Lucie Aron

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, strong sexuality, nudity and some language)

Running Time: 1:56

Release Date: 5/26/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 26, 2017

Berlin Syndrome is a discomforting psychological thriller. It's discomforting in an effective way, in that the movie wants us to feel uncomfortable about its scenario. As for the psychology, it skimps perhaps a bit too much. The screenplay, adapted from Melanie Joosten's novel of the same name by Shaun Grant, presents a comprehensible presentation of two characters—one a captor and the other a captive. When it comes to exploring the complicated relationship between those two characters, though, Grant's script doesn't go much deeper than the surface.

Beneath that surface is where the truly uncomfortable elements of this story lie. We can tell from a couple of scenes here that suggest a twisted bond forming between a man who is imprisoning a woman in his apartment and the imprisoned woman. They are only suggestions, though, and over the course of the story, the movie ultimately negates them in favor of something simpler and easier to understand.

The eventual captive is Clare (Teresa Palmer), an Austrailian photographer who's backpacking across Europe to get away from her life for a while. Her latest stop is Berlin, where she checks into a hostel, spends the night drinking on the roof with some fellow travelers, and finds herself alone in the morning. Clare is chatted up by Andi (Max Riemelt), a local man with a firm grasp of English, since he teaches the language at a high school in the city.

The pair spends the night drinking and dancing, but Clare says she's leaving the city in the morning. She has a change of heart at the last minute, finds Andi, and goes back to his apartment with him. "No one can hear you," he assures her after their clothes come off. That's about all the foreshadowing that is necessary.

In the morning, Andi goes to work, leaving Clare behind. When she tries to leave, she discovers that the door is reinforced with a bolt lock that extends across the width of the door—the only way out of the apartment. Andi didn't leave the key.

It might have been an innocent mistake, but once Andi returns home with flowers and food for dinner, it quickly becomes obvious that it wasn't. He intends to keep her locked up in his apartment.

The story proceeds along two threads. One watches Clare as she tries to escape (The apartment has reinforced windows, too) and gradually comes to accept—partly because Andi bounds her to the bed after her early escape attempt—that this situation will be her life for the foreseeable future.

Unexpectedly and rather daringly, the other thread follows Andi as he goes about his daily routine. He teaches, interacts with his fellow faculty members, and spends time with his father (played by Matthias Habich), a university professor (whose analysis of a piece of literature featuring two main characters and their differing perspectives is a bit on-the-nose in terms of establishing the movie's approach).

The bold part of these sections of the movie is how Grant and director Cate Shortland humanize a character who, though his actions with Clare, already has shown himself to be capable of monstrous deeds. From what we see, Andi is a good teacher. He is uncomfortable around his co-workers, especially when a fellow teacher uses his coffee mug in the lounge. There's something almost childish about the way he insists that he washes the mug himself, despite the other teacher's offer to clean it for him. He goes on to scrub his hands after that other teacher (a woman, which is an important details) briefly brushes his wrist.

In his visits with his father, Andi shows genuine concern for the man, who wonders why his son is always ending up in relationships (from what the father knows from his son) with tourists. When the topic of Andi's mother arises, the son is quick is condemn her for leaving her family, even though the father has no such animosity toward her.

These details work to analyze Andi's actions without pushing the point. In a way, they also make him a more frightening threat. He's not a monster. Andi is unassuming, awkward, and wounded. He's simply a common guy with an understandable background. That he's capable of doing what he does to Clare—and at least one other woman whom we learn about as the movie progresses—is all the more unsettling because there are no obvious signs of that capacity in his day-to-day life.

Relegated to being trapped in the apartment, Clare essentially serves the role of being the outlet for Andi's actions and, as she explores her surroundings, of uncovering what he's truly capable of doing. She does try to escape, but the prospect is almost immediately a hopeless one. Palmer is particularly effective in the way we can see her mind working even as her character remains static, and there's a moment, when Andi is at his most vulnerable, that she performs with a level of sympathy that's completely believable, despite the circumstances.

It's a moment that suggests much more happening within Clare's mind, but Berlin Syndrome dismisses it as soon as possible in order to reach a fairly predictable climax. Ultimately, there's a disconnect in the way the movie does so little with the prisoner while it works so hard to understand the captor.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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