Berlin Syndrome is a tense thriller designed to showcase the strengths – and weaknesses – of the human spirit.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Berlin Syndrome (2017) follows an Australian photojournalist, Clare (Teresa Palmer), who meets and spends the night with mysterious and charming Andi (Max Riemelt) while traveling in Berlin. The morning after, Clare finds she is unable to leave Andi’s apartment because he has locked her inside.
Obviously, the title Berlin Syndrome is a play on Stockholm Syndrome in which a hostage victim feels affection or trust towards their captor. Now, Clare doesn’t exactly develop Stockholm Syndrome, but she does have her will to survive put to the test in Shortland’s tense thriller.
The audience knows from the start that Clare is going to be kidnapped, it’s just a matter of when and how. Think of it like watching Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) for the first time; you knew Liam Neeson’s daughter was getting snatched, and every decision she made leading up to her capture seems dangerous and irresponsible.
Shortland builds tension from the start by showing Clare arriving in Berlin alone, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Clare’s wide-eyed wonder at the sights around her show just how naïve she is. Shots of Clare wandering around Berlin are framed through windows, around corners, and across busy streets. The camera is often at a distance from Clare, giving us the feeling that she is being stalked.
Naïve Clare is slow to realize she is a prisoner, hanging out in Andi’s apartment for the whole day while he is at work. Initially, Clare accepts that Andi made a simple mistake and forgot to leave her a key to get herself out. It takes another day for Clare to realize that Andi doesn’t ever intend for her to leave.
From here, the film follows both Clare, trapped in the apartment, and Andi, going about his day at work and visiting his dad. This works in the film’s favor as the audience is given insight to Andi’s twisted mind without getting too bored hanging out with Clare all day. The second act does drag a bit, however, as Clare oscillates between trying to find a way out, falling into a depressed acceptance of her situation, and pure stir-crazy lunacy.
As the film progresses, Clare and Andi are in fewer scenes together and more scenes apart. We can feel Clare’s isolation in the silent apartment which is conveniently located in an inhabited area of Berlin. As Clare watches the seasons change outside her window, a hopeful look passes over her face, indicating the strength of her will to survive.
Without giving the ending away, I will say Shortland sets up the final act very well early in the film, making Clare’s final attempt at escaping extremely satisfying.
However, I couldn’t help but notice two plot holes, one of which is the SIM card Andi takes out of Clare’s phone towards the beginning. Andi removes the SIM card so Clare can’t call for help when he is gone, but in most countries, you can dial emergency services without it.
Plot holes aside, Berlin Syndrome has a lot going for it despite its predictable ending. The immense tension that Shortland builds through the film meets a rather disappointing conclusion. However, Berlin Syndrome is worth the watch for Palmer and Riemelt, both deliver captivating, and at times frightening, performances.
I recommend you watch Berlin Syndrome if you’ve seen Taken and are somehow still not convinced to abandon your solo backpacking trip across Europe.