While holidaying in Berlin, Australian photographer, Clare, meets Andi, a charismatic local man and there is an instant attraction between them. A night of passion ensues. But what initially appears to be the start of a romance, takes an unexpected and sinister turn when Clare wakes the following morning to discover Andi has left for work and locked her in his apartment. An easy mistake to make, of course, except Andi has no intention of letting her go again. Ever.
An idea that’s been told over and over again, Berlin Syndrome stands out thanks to its lead actors. Both Teresa Palmer and Max Riemelt light up the screen as they act opposite of each other in this chilling psychological thriller. The film itself follows tropes of other kidnap movies but benefits from its characters not making blatant mistakes and instead adapting to situations in a savvy way. Not shying away from anything, Australian director Cate Shortland helps to make the experience more surreal by capturing the gruesome terror as we sympathize for Palmer’s Clare and despise the repulsive Andi.
From the beginning, the film is tense thanks to the grim shots of Berlin with a haunting electronic score seeping through the background. Establishing a sense of isolation, Shortland makes the most of the confined space Clare is stuck in. While she looks on from the inside, Andi is continuing with his ‘normal life’ which includes teaching at a sports academy. After failed escapes, Clare becomes content with her living arrangement, hopelessly following the orders of Andi.
Palmer gives a breakout performance in which her mental state is changing constantly. Her lust for Andi puts her in his crosshairs as he takes advantage of her vulnerability. The majority of the film follows her in Andi’s apartment as her suffering and pain can be felt. As she becomes desperate over time, she will stop at nothing to break through that door. The courageousness of Clare makes for heart pounding moments where she swings and claws her ways through Andi as she tries to escape. Her onscreen presence makes watching this surreal horror story that much easier.
Max Riemelt gives a superb performance as the sick and twisted Andi who holds Clare captive. His sadistic manner is paralleled by his odd side in which he often gives Clare gifts as a sign of love and affection. The subplot with Andi and his family/work holds the film back from being a taut thriller as it doesn’t offer the same intrigue as the dysfunctional relationship between Clare and Andi. Leaving certain elements to the imagination would have served the story better instead of showing too much.
The third act is gripping as we see both characters in positions they aren’t accustomed to and makes for nail biting thrills as we wait for the outcome. The film is visceral with its brutality and realistic depiction of a kidnapping. Berlin Syndrome rarely falters thanks to its consistent sense of suspense and developed characters that have unique characteristics and traits. Despite its graphic content, Berlin Syndrome’s exquisite filmmaking and acting makes it hard to look away.