Overview: A passionate infatuation between an Australian tourist and a Berlin native takes an obsessive turn. 2017; Aquarius Films; Rated R; 116 minutes
A Return to Form: One of the most underappreciated styles of cinema is a good old, slow-burn thriller. These have existed throughout film’s history, and the style can be seen in classics like The Conversation and more modern films, like The Machinist. However, it seems to be a lost art form that has been replaced by films that take their cues from the horror genre. These films tend to employ a scare (even seemingly unrelated to the plot) to satisfy our desire to be frightened right away. It might just take a tiny bit more skill and a steadier hand behind the camera to build the tension slowly and not let us off the hook. Berlin Syndrome gives us that.
Thankfully, Not as Advertised: Berlin Syndrome, although certainly packaged and sold as a standard horror film, also fits in that slow burn thriller mold, particularly in its first half. To the credit of the director, Cate Shortland, the film repeatedly toys with and teases the audience. The aforementioned first half, in which our two main characters connect, see-saws between romance and veiled threat. It both primes us for what is to come and makes us realize just how dangerous new relationships with strangers can be. There are moments of silence from Andi (portrayed with wonderful intensity by Max Riemelt) that, in a different film, could easily be seen as heartfelt and romantic. Here, those same expressions are sexually charged with a hint of danger. There is a line repetition in the film that works on both levels, and is aided by a terrific delivery from Riemelt. That focus and care makes his performance all the more disturbing with the inevitable turn this relationship takes.
Palmer Shines in the Dark: When the true nature of Andi is revealed, the story could easily be seen as unoriginal and containing all the tropes of a standard captive horror film. Berlin Syndrome certainly never hits the heights of a classic like Misery, but the presence and performance of Teresa Palmer, as Clare, will keep audiences engaged, and most importantly, caring about our protagonist. And this is a hard sell, given that Clare immediately trusts not only Andi, but numerous other strangers before meeting him. Clare’s arc, which begins as a doe-eyed tourist focused on taking photographs in a strange new country and ends in a decidedly darker place, honestly has no business being believable. But Palmer’s performance catapults this story and brings us inside with her. Her trust, torment, fear, and most of all her desperation read clearly on the screen and we are just as focused on escaping as Clare. A role like this could easily be tossed aside as just another girl who survives, but there is a great deal beneath the surface and she deserves to be seen.
Losing Focus: It is really a shame that there is so much wasted time outside of Clare’s plight. There is a halfhearted and completely unnecessary attempt to humanize our villain (I think?) by including a tedious subplot involving his mildly strained relationship with his aging father. We not only do not care about him or this relationship, but it also slows the film to a crawl just as things are ramping up in excitement for Clare. It feels more like a plot contrivance to get our heroine some alone time to plot rather than a character moment that fits in to the film in any sense. The point of this extension of the runtime seems to be to build dread and concern for Clare. This works in part. But honestly, given her circumstances, the dread level is up to our ears already. Despite a few plot contrivances and slowing of plot, it is hard not to look forward to future efforts from Cate Shortland, as the scenes in the house and those leading up to the terror waiting inside are simply dripping with suspense and anticipation.
Overall: A fantastic performance from Teresa Palmer and steady direction from Cate Shortland push Berlin Syndrome into an enjoyable film despite a script filled with standard horror tropes.
Featured Image: Entertainment One