The primal terror of captivity appears in everything from fairy tales to horror films, and female captives are particularly popular tropes for vulnerability to sexual abuse. Most captivity stories are framed into a binary where the captor is an evil ogre and the captive an object of sympathy. One of the many reasons the Australian made Berlin Syndrome (2017) stands out as a psychological thriller is that it defies these conventions by portraying the captor as an almost normal professional guy and the captive as sexually complicit in her captivity.
The plotline is simple, linear and familiar. It opens with the wide-eyed wonder and excitement of young Aussie backpacker Clare (Teresa Palmer) arriving in the uber-cool city of Berlin. Like thousands of others, she is looking for adventure in a city famous for its architecture and nightspots and she is captivated by the beauty of the city. She meets German native Andi (Max Riemelt) and is immediately attracted to his Aryian good-looks and charming smile. He is a school teacher and thus trustworthy, so they hook up for a night of erotic passion and he leaves for school in the morning with her locked in his fortified, soundproofed, and isolated flat. Just an oversight, she thinks, but it happens again the next day. When she discovers her phone SIM card removed and finds an album of bondage photos the real terror begins.
The story itself is unremarkable, but the acting, filming, and directing make this a high-tension act from beginning to end. The key to this psychological thriller is establishing the ‘normality’ of the film’s perpetrator so that we feel he is just another lovely guy. Once we are taken in by his charms, the film paces out in tiny incremental steps how Clare’s discomfort changes to fear and then terror. The photographic style accentuates sharp close-ups on terrified eyes against out-of-focus backgrounds and an almost hand-held style of filming to emphasis the instability of the situation. Teresa Palmer is brilliant in showing the transitions from initial innocence and country-girl naivette to the palpable eroticism of domination and the stark realisation that she may not survive. Co-star Max Riemelt is her match in every way, evoking the charm and normality of an urbane teacher who is attentive to his students and respectful of his father. To the outside world, there are no warnings. Then slowly he reveals his distorted grasp on reality and deranged intentions to keep Clare as if she were a mere possession like a doll or a pet. His plans are not entirely sinister as he believes that love will blossom even in captivity. But in this fairy tale, the handsome prince morphs into a monster, a meta-reference to the millions of domestic abuse scenarios in which modern-day princesses still find themselves.
Many thrillers cannot sustain dramatic tension for a whole feature film but in Berline Syndrome it keeps rising until the climactic scenes when unexpected events overtake audience expectations. At times the pace slows down to create a sense of inertia in captivity but the ending is swift and satisfyingly conclusive. This is an engaging thriller that echoes parental warnings about strangers with nice smiles. Preying on such fears taps the right nerve to make any backpacker a little bit more careful.
Director: Kate Shortland
Stars: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt