Cate Shortland offers an urban take on William Wyler’s “The Collector” in “Berlin Syndrome,” a psychological thriller that’s expertly put together but, in the end, doesn’t bring enough twists to its rather predictable plot trajectory.
Adapted by Shaun Grant from a novel by Melanie Joosten, the picture stars Teresa Palmer as Clare, an Australian student visiting the German capital researching—so she claims at one point—the architecture of the erstwhile GDR. While strolling through the city she literally bumps into Andi (Max Riemelt), a seemingly nice local fellow who teaches high-school English. After they spend the day together he invites her to his apartment, where they enjoy a night of intense but essentially meaningless sex. Awakening the next morning after Andi has left for work, Clare finds herself locked in, and though she assumes that her imprisonment was accidental, it becomes apparent when he returns that it was not.
Clare has become Andi’s forced houseguest, and—as she will eventually discover—apparently not the first. She will go through various emotional stages over the following days—from desperate efforts to escape through willingness, whether real or feigned, to conform to her captor’s expectations. She will manage to flee to the street at one point, only to be hauled back. On a rare outing to the woods she unsuccessfully asks help from strangers. Again, she will attract the attention of a possible savior in the hallway, but it turns out to be an episode modeled after Scatman Crothers’ reappearance in “The Shining.” Ultimately it will be the infatuation of one of his students that will lead to Andi’s undoing.
And that points to one of the film’s more curious features. We are told a good deal about Andi via scenes of his life outside the apartment. We learn about his tense relationship with his father (Matthias Habich), an elderly academic. We watch him trying to instruct his frequently recalcitrant students. We see him interacting awkwardly with women at a Christmas party. But while his past and present are given considerable attention, even if they can’t provide any deep psychological explanation of his actions, Clare remains pretty much a cipher. Riemelt takes advantage of the script’s asymmetry to provide some shading to his character, but though Palmer conveys Clare’s fright and agitation well enough, she’s not able to invest the character with a depth she lacks on the page (Grant’s, at least, though Joosten might have given her more nuance). When she is shown at the close with her head hanging out the window of a moving car, like a dog, the comparison unfortunately seems rather apt.
Despite that hole at the center, the film does manage to raise the issue suggested by the title—whether Clare’s confinement will have the same effect on her that the syndrome identified with the Swedish capital connotes. It features two powerful lead performances. And the level of craft that Shortland and her collaborators—production designer Melinda Doring, cinematographer Germain McMicking and editor Jack Hutchings—exhibit is impressive; though it runs on too long, “Berlin Syndrome” creates a strong atmosphere of dread, without losing its naturalistic edge. Bryony Marks’ doom-laden score adds to the pervasive mood of gloom.
Despite all its filmmaking skill, however, Shortland’s movie has the feel of an exercise—one that is expertly made, but nevertheless awfully familiar.