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New Review: Berlin Syndrome (2017)

Updated on September 7, 2017

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Badding

The monster at the center of Berlin Syndrome is a terrifying figure indeed, a seemingly friendly German schoolteacher named Andi (Max Riemelt) who charms unsuspecting female tourists back to his apartment, locks them there for weeks and months, and makes them his personal sex slave. Then, when he tires of them, he drives them out to a bleak and isolated forest, finishes them off with an axe, and then searches the streets for his next victim.

What really makes the character frightening is the fact that there is no explanation for why he does what he does. There's nothing in his personal life to suggest that he’s capable of doing the monstrous things we see him do. There is some tension in his relationship with his sick university-professor father (Matthias Habich), but they seem on pretty good terms overall. He seems to like his teaching job, and is somewhat on good terms with his fellow co-workers (they’re always inviting him to hang out).

We do learn that his mother left them both when Andi was still very young, although that's hardly an explanation for the way that he is.

Whenever he’s not in his apartment tormenting his latest victim, you would never know how monstrous the man truly is. He seems just like a regular average Joe, the sort of person you would encounter at your local supermarket or (in this case) at your child’s high school. Riemelt is certainly frightening when his true colors are shown, but he’s also able to imbue his character with a sense of menace even at his most charming. Just look at the scene where he playfully grabs a woman’s neck when she asks him how to say suffocate in German and tell me that it isn’t unsettling.

The screenplay by Shaun Grant (adapted from Melanie Joosten’s novel of the same name) works really hard to make the character Andi into a complex and frighteningly real monster, and it does a good job at it. Unfortunately, the movie makes the mistake of not giving nearly as much development to his latest victim, who is supposed to be the protagonist of the story. Her name is Clare (Teresa Palmer), an Australian photojournalist who’s touring across Europe to escape her life for a while.

"When you're alone, and life is making you lonely, You can always go, Downtown..."
"When you're alone, and life is making you lonely, You can always go, Downtown..."

She runs into Andi on the street, and they hit it off almost immediately. He offers her a few strawberries, and she finds it adorable when he makes a few mistakes with the English language (such as when he says he sometimes “compensates” life instead of “contemplates”). Their second night on the town ends with her going to his apartment, a dilapidated place with peeling wallpaper and stairwells lit in ominous low light. They have a night of passionate sex, and when she wakes up the next morning after Andi goes off to work, she tries to leave but finds herself locked in.

The front door is reinforced with a bolt-lock that stretches across the entire door, and the windows are double-paned. She can’t necessarily call out for help, since it seems as though Andi is the only resident in the building. At first, she assumes that her initial imprisonment was nothing more than an innocent mistake on Andi’s part, but once he returns homes, it becomes increasing clear that it wasn’t.

It’s not easy at all to watch the many horrible things that Andi does to her, including tying her spread-eagle to the bed while he goes off to work (when he returns and releases her, she’s covered in urine). Clare soon discovers that she’s not Andi’s first victim when she finds a long strand of blond hair in the drain of his bathtub. She manages to escape the apartment one time after stabbing his hand with a screwdriver, but she doesn’t get very far.

Palmer is an excellent actress, and she certainly captures the many stages of fear and anguish her character experiences convincingly enough. The problem is that, as written, she remains frustratingly underdeveloped throughout. It’s a curious decision by Grant to give more development and care to the captor rather than the captive, and it’s one that doesn’t really pay off. I found myself semi-interested in the proceedings without ever fully investing in them.

A match made in hell!
A match made in hell!

There is no denying that Berlin Syndrome is a stupendously well-made movie. Director Cate Shortland gives the movie a sinister and Hitchcock-ian tone, and the cinematography by Germain McMicking is absolutely stunning. Special mention must also be made to Bryony Marks’ suitably gloomy score, which adds considerably to the atmosphere.

Yet despite its classy surface and interesting villain, Berlin Syndrome feels miscalculated and curiously hollow. It had the potential to be a disturbing and captivating psychological thriller, but it shot itself in the foot when it made the monster the most important figure in the story.

Rated R for disturbing violent content, strong sexuality, nudity, profanity

Final Grade: ** ½
(out of ****)

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