Style can be blessing or curse, and for acclaimed Aussie director Cate Shortland, it’s quickly becoming a crutch. While Berlin Syndrome fits neatly into her oeuvre of female-centric, art-house-affected thrillers, it hamstrings itself with sluggish pacing and a derivative narrative core.
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is as listless as backpackers come, drifting into Berlin on a whim, seeking “those life experiences” everyone talks about. She drifts straight into the arms – and bed – of local teacher Andi (Max Riemelt), and wishes she didn’t have to leave. But when Andi leaves for work the next day, he hasn’t left a key, and the door is conspicuously barred.
Berlin Syndrome mines the classic fear of the other that fuelled the Taken franchise, but takes it in the opposite direction. Instead of a ruthless hitman, Clare is an anaemic innocent. How else could she fall for the charms of so immediately disconcerting a fella as Andi, who sets off alarm bells even without the looming threat of the film’s title.
Shortland has a knack for depicting sex in a frank and rousing fashion: Clare and Andi’s first tryst does a better job of misleading the audience than Andi’s unusual flirtation. As his head dips between her thighs, she goes to muffle her own moans, until Andi brushes her hands aside. “No one can hear you,” he breathes, and in his voice we hear both edges of that blade ringing through the abandoned apartment.
But while Shortland and Snowtown/Jasper Jones screenwriter Shaun Grant draw on the thriller genre for some particularly knuckle-whitening sequences, Berlin Syndrome succumbs to its own art house aspirations, and we languish in Andi’s prison along with Clare to little dramatic effect. Bryony Marks’ legato strings only deepen the sense of exhaustion. In effect, Shortland is inflicting the same conditions on her audience that Andi creates, drawing the experience out as long as possible; hoping that the longer you’re trapped within her claustrophobic creation, the better you’ll come to appreciate her artistic vision.
Worse is that Grant’s script admits to its own literary aspirations, citing examples more complex than what it can offer. We follow Andi throughout his day, teaching at high school before attending his father’s lectures on literature; in his lecture, Erich (Matthias Habich) cites narratives with dual protagonists and parallel narratives. Grant is too eager here to champion those authors in whose shadows he dwells.
With its relentless grey and interminable pacing, Berlin Syndrome offers some remarkably tense and disquieting sequences lost amid urban decay. Had she seen fit to relinquish her ‘art house’ status, Shortland may have made a more effective captor, but our escape could not come soon enough.
Berlin Syndrome opens in cinemas on Thursday April 20.