A movie about a woman being victimised isn’t the kind I would normally go and see but Berlin Syndrome is directed by Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore) so I knew it was going to be interesting with the story of the woman at the heart. Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a naive Australian tourist newly arrived in Berlin. By chance she meets German school teacher Andi (Max Riemelt) and strikes up a hesitant friendship that leads to her staying the night at his isolated apartment in an otherwise empty former East Berlin apartment block. When she wakes in the morning with Andi gone to work, she finds the doors and windows locked and she can’t leave.
Films about abducted women are not new, often with a man saving the day, but, rather than sensationalise, Shortland immerses us in what feels like an authentic experience. She brings us claustrophobically close to the characters so you get inside their heads, feel every elevated heartbeat, every surge of adrenaline and roil of suppressed emotion. The small depth of field and fragmented, roving camera won’t let us look away, showing us the isolation of our individual experiences, the vulnerability when we try to connect with another.
We see through Clare’s eyes as she tries to embrace what scares her, being brave in a strange world where the only familiarity is the art and architecture she loves. We experience her slow realisation, at first incredulous, that she has made the wrong choice and every turn of her mind as she tries to survive. We are given insight into Andi’s experience as we observe his interactions with other people – his father, fellow teachers and students. Nothing is didactic; we watch and slowly begin to understand.
Every now and then the camera speed slows and shows us the moments of beauty amidst the mundane and the monstrous. This could be any abusive relationship where escape seems impossible. This could be any destructive misogyny where contempt and control replace compassion. I saw myself in Clare, how independence in the world for women is often mediated by fear of abuse.
Although this barely passes the Bechtel test, it feels like it comes from a feminist standpoint. Clare’s strength is the calm centre of the narrative and, although it cannot always protect her from harm, we become sure it will carry her through.
Currently screening at selected cinemas.
Have you seen this film? Let me know what you think of it in the comments below.