When There’s No More Room in Stockholm: “Berlin Syndrome” (2017)
One of many problems with Berlin Syndrome is how it doesn’t venture beyond its glossy surface. It’s a horror-thriller that lacks any curiosity toward its themes or characters, remaining fixed in place for 2 hours, confident that its conventions will see it through.
It’s Captivity divided by The Night Porter, minus the seedy torture-porn thrills of the former, and the somber art-house highs of the latter.
When contrasted against last year’s similarly-themed (but far more original) Pet, Berlin seems especially disappointing.
The biggest shock is that the author of the source novel and the director of the film are both women (Melanie Joosten and Cate Shortland, respectively). For all the excitement surrounding the increased recognition and opportunities for women in the filmmaking world, there are just as many opportunities to create tired, misguided, and exploitative crap like Berlin.
Shame on me for thinking this story originated in the mind of some deluded dude, and that he was making a profound statement on unhealthy relationships in the new millennium.
Berlin’s aesthetic is slick to the point of being utterly generic – travelogue-style shots of the titular city also emphasize the loneliness of desolate buildings that have fallen into disrepair. Interiors of hostels and squats resemble the upper-class sitcom representation of such things. If you’ve seen a film from IFC or Magnolia within the past 5 years, you’ve seen the look of Berlin – it’s only “ominous” in a homogenized thriller sense.
Ditto the plot: Clare (Teresa Palmer – Lights Out) is an Aussie photographer looking to explore the world, and in her travels winds up bumming around Berlin. She samples the local thrift boutiques and bookstores (could the crude sketch of two people fucking be foreshadowing?), and has a seemingly serendipitous run-in with Andi (Max Riemelt), a Jeremy Sisto-looking charmer who teaches English at the local sports school. Over the course of a day, they take in the sights, including a street of fairytale-style houses (could the random wolf mask Clare picks up be more foreshadowing?). Tempted by this darkly handsome Prince (Not Really) Charming, Clare nonetheless rebuffs an invite back to Andi’s. The next day, she runs into him at the bookstore; things progress quickly to his place, and the following morning, she finds herself locked inside his apartment. Feigning absent-minded negligence at first, it becomes clear that Andi is keeping Clare prisoner.
Motivation is another problem in Berlin: Clare is young and attractive, but not particularly savvy, and the naivete that leads to her predicament was enough to make me dislike her for the remainder of the film. I never really empathized with her, and this isn’t helped by Shortland’s overemphasis of Andi’s creepiness from the outset – he fondles Clare’s hair with a weird clutch, locks the car doors, and offhandedly drops lines about how his bolted apartment door “sticks,” how the windows “don’t open,” and how “no one will hear you” while they fuck. We know we’re stuck in a horror-thriller concept, but that didn’t mean Clare had to fall so obviously and easily into it.
This wouldn’t be so damaging to the film overall if Andi had an interesting angle as antagonist, but he doesn’t. There’s a bit of pointless irony (and more on-the-nose dialog about “parallel narratives”) when it’s revealed that his father is an ailing lit professor, but a several-minute reprieve at the midpoint, meant to “humanize” his character, is just so much art-house padding. Outside of his selective, Sheldon Cooper-styled dissociation from the horror of his actions, he’s a garden-variety Alpha Male with misogynist delusions of possession.
Then there’s the moments where Clare discovers there’s no cell signal at Andi’s place…or when she tries to break the windows (surprise!)…or when, after months of imprisonment, the first homeless man starts digging around in the dumpster outside the apartment block. The clichés in Berlin feel obligatory, but their inclusion is neither subversive nor unique; we’ve seen these things – and their outcome – too many times before.
While Shortland and screenwriter Shaun Grant lean hard on visual style, their grasp of character is maddeningly minimal. To call Berlin slavish to pop psychology would be generous, and its antecedents are any number of trashy made-for-cable thrillers from the ‘90s. But there’s the rub: those films, in all their teasing-sexy glory, at least recognized their lowbrow identity (so did Captivity, for that matter). Berlin’s distended, self-important run time and artsy handling carries notions of sociological insight and genre terror that never materialize.
As the film lumbered to its conclusion, I was waiting for the inevitable twist that would magically justify its existence (not that it would’ve helped). There is some irony in its closing moments that would be more well-taken if everything prior hadn’t been such a patience-testing slog, but I couldn’t help but think back to one of Andi’s lines to Clare: “It’s your fucking fault, okay?”
He was right all along: I never should have put this thing in my Blu-ray player. Watch Pet instead.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
(Berlin Syndrome is available via digital retailers and on DVD through Lionsgate.)