You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Berlin Syndrome’

Cate Shortland's kinky confinement thriller reveals her affinity for genre-tinged material, at no cost to her distinctive formal style.

Theresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading. (English, German dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3335606/

Australian director Cate Shortland’s films feature a kind of threatening beauty. Their surfaces are too immaculate, too exquisite, not to be masking messier, queasier ideas and impulses beneath: the reckless, harshly punished sexuality of a teenage girl in “Somersault,” or a youth’s dawning realization of her Nazi brainwashing in “Lore.” In “Berlin Syndrome,” Shortland’s equally, intensely elegant third feature, the ugly subversion of seductive exteriors is built into the film’s very narrative, as a heady, sexy holiday hook-up turns overnight into an abusive abduction — cuing a nightmarish game of sexual control and captivity, in which toxic masculinity calls the shots. Adapted from Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel, this arresting, slightly over-extended conversation piece marks Shortland’s first foray into genre storytelling — though the film’s aloof tone and angular gender politics keep it in the art-house domain.

That said, with sales already having proven brisk — a U.S. distribution deal was secured with Vertical Entertainment prior to its Sundance debut, with Netflix gaining streaming rights — “Berlin Syndrome” promises to be its director’s most widely seen effort to date, hinting at her potential facility with more commercial crossover projects. Between more trickily opaque stretches of character development, Shortland nails a handful of straight-up, nerve-shredding tension sequences, teasing a version of the film that might have tilted into full-bore horror.

As it is, the backpacker-abroad scenario that unfolds here is as coldly frightening as any grislier “Saw”-style version of events. Wandering aimlessly and alone through Berlin, young photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer, rather boldly underplaying) seems content to let adventure come to her, so when handsome, chatty local teacher Andi (Max Riemelt) takes an interest, a brief, hot dalliance with him strikes her as just the right degree of recklessness. After some romantic comedy-style courting — ambling through public gardens, correcting his adorable English errors, mooning over Gustav Klimt paintings — their relationship takes a sensual step up. As in her previous films, Shortland conveys the sense of touch with quivering exactitude, as Germain McMicking’s camera lingers deliciously over entwined expanses of skin.

The film’s steamiest, most ravishingly lit love scene comes, however, with a brutal hangover: The next morning, Clare awakes alone in Andi’s apartment to find all doors and windows impenetrably bolted, and her cellphone stripped of its SIM card. When her captor returns, meanwhile, she finds his demeanor drastically changed, his affable gallantry giving way to violent, chilly mastery — though he appears psychologically torn between blandly playing house (“Do you like pesto?”) and more perversely exploiting her imprisonment. The glowingly shot physical intimacy stops here — Shortland and screenwriter Shaun Grant show thankfully little interest in sexing up this grim chamber drama from this point — but “Berlin Syndrome” still demonstrates an acute awareness of body language and purely physical power-play, whether through touching the flesh or breaking it.

What remains ambiguous to the end is to what extent the film’s so-called Berlin syndrome mirrors its Stockholm counterpart. Does Clare’s confinement stoke a sincere personal connection to Andi? Is she merely play-acting as required to survive? Or is she ultimately in two minds? The stars’ cool, constrained performances support a range of interpretations. Palmer plays Clare as something of a closed book from the outset, only receding further from the viewer as the physical and psychological strain of her plight takes its hollowing toll on her person — a courageously passive approach to a character who could be played, in a more conventional thriller, as a far pluckier victim. Andi is granted more of a backstory, including all manner of daddy and mommy issues, but Riemelt’s quietly clenched performance resists tragic sympathy as much as it does gaudily villainous cliché.

The extreme low-temperature simmer of their relationships does risk palling over the course of nearly two hours, particularly as Grant (in his first feature project since debuting with 2011’s stunning “The Snowtown Murders”) preserves perhaps one too many of the novel’s mini-climaxes before skipping over some key logical steps in the finale. Still, it’s impressive how much throbbing terror the film works up from such a spare setup — surviving even the near-ruinous circumstances of the film’s Sundance premiere screening, where the DCP froze 10 minutes before the end, allowing crucial heart-in-mouth momentum to dissipate before a long-delayed resumption.

Editor Jack Hutchings can take a bow for the film’s slinky, insidious rhythm, but the movie is technically pristine in every department, from Bryony Marks’ highly inventive, selective score to Melinda Doring’s carefully thought-out production design — the spatial dynamics and restrictions of which cruelly turn Clare’s professed passion for GDR architecture against her. McMicking’s camerawork, finally, is dazzling throughout, manipulating framing and focus to portray Clare’s boxy surroundings as a patchwork landscape of forbidden and permitted spaces, and seeking soul-relieving beauty wherever it can: As seen through Clare’s eyes, a dismal string of Christmas lights carries all the radiant promise of the outside world.

Sundance Film Review: 'Berlin Syndrome'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Competition), Jan. 20, 2017. Running time: 116 MIN.

Production: (Australia) A Vertical Entertainment (in U.S.)/Curzon Artificial Eye (in U.K.) release of a Screen Australia, Aquarius Films presentation of an Aquarius Films production in association with Film Victoria, Memento Films, DDP Studios. (International sales: Memento Films, Paris.) Producer: Polly Staniford. Executive producers: Angie Fielder, Emilie Georges, Tanja Meissner, Naima Abed, Troy Lum, Cecilia Ritchie, Oliver Lawrance, Florence Tourbier, Scott Anderson.

Crew: Director: Cate Shortland. Screenplay: Shaun Grant, adapted from the novel by Melanie Joosten. Camera (color, widescreen): Germain McMicking. Editor: Jack Hutchings.

With: Theresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading. (English, German dialogue)

More Film

  • Aisling Franciosi

    European Film Promotion Unveils 2019 Shooting Stars

    Aisling Franciosi (“The Nightingale”), Ardalan Esmaili (“The Charmer”) and Elliott Crosset Hove (“Winter Brothers”) are among the 10 actors and actresses who have been named as the European Film Promotion’s Shooting Stars. Previous Shooting Stars include Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Pilou Asbæk and Baltasar Kormákur. The new crop of up-and-coming talent for the 22nd edition of [...]

  • Jodie Foster'Money Monster' photocall, Palais, 69th

    Film News Roundup: Jodie Foster to Direct, Star in Remake of Icelandic Thriller

    In today’s film news roundup, Jodie Foster is remaking Iceland’s “Woman at War,” the Art Directors Guild honors production designers Anthony Masters and Ben Carre, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” gets cast and Melissa Takal directs “New Year New You” for Hulu. PROJECT ANNOUNCEMENT More Reviews Concert Review: Maxwell Brings Down the House at Rapturous Hometown [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal to Star in Remake of Denmark's Oscar Entry 'The Guilty' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bold Films, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker’s Nine Stories banner have acquired the rights to remake the Danish thriller “The Guilty,” with Gyllenhaal attached to star. The pic won the world cinema audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was also named one of the top five foreign language films of 2018 by [...]

  • Toxic Avenger

    'Toxic Avenger' Movie in the Works at Legendary

    Legendary Entertainment is developing “The Toxic Avenger” as a movie after acquiring the feature film rights. Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz of Troma Entertainment will serve as producers. Alex Garcia and Jay Ashenfelter will oversee for Legendary. More Reviews Concert Review: Maxwell Brings Down the House at Rapturous Hometown Show Film Review: 'Jirga' Kaufman and [...]

  • Constance Wu

    'Crazy Rich Asians' Star Constance Wu in Negotiations for Romantic Comedy

    “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu is in talks to join Sony’s Screen Gems’ untitled romantic comedy, with Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman producing. “GLOW” actress Kimmy Gatewood is making her feature directorial debut on the project. She will be directing from a Savion Einstein script about a woman who becomes pregnant with two babies [...]

  • Maggie Gyllenhaal AoA

    Maggie Gyllenhaal on Why a Woman Director Doesn't Automatically Make a Story More Feminine

    Having a female director doesn’t automatically make a story more feminine, says “The Kindergarten Teacher” star Maggie Gyllenhaal, but when it comes to her film with director Sara Colangelo, she says the female narrative is fully encapsulated. “Just because something is written or directed by a woman doesn’t necessarily make it a feminine articulation,” she says [...]

  • Kevin Hart Hurricane Harvey

    Academy Looks Warily at Oscar Host Options as Board Meeting Looms

    Kevin Hart’s abrupt departure as Oscars host has left the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences scrambling to find someone to take the gig. As of now, the situation remains fluid as the group’s leadership explores options, including going host-less, individuals familiar with the situation told Variety. The Academy was blindsided by Hart’s announced departure Thursday [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content