Clare (Teresa Palmer) is an Australian backpacker who has wound up in Europe, and today arrives by train in Berlin, fascinated by its architecture which she avidly photographs in the hope that she will be able to turn her pictures into a travelogue book. However, life can be lonely in a big city when you don't know anyone there, and she finds herself feeling lost in the hostel she decides to stay at: she does meet a group of other young people on the roof and they invite her to join them to shoot the breeze and enjoy a drink, which she does, yet though she has made a connection once they return to their rooms she feels alone once more. If only she could meet a nice German man...
Although you would not know it from the first half hour or so, Berlin Syndrome was actually a thriller, a horror-inflected one at that, strongly reminiscent of John Fowles' novel The Collector and its subsequent filming by director William Wyler. Palmer took the Samantha Eggar role as the woman captured and held against her will, part pet and part love slave, while the captor, the Terence Stamp role, was played by Max Riemelt, then best known for his part on the television series Sense8. The major difference between this and the sixties version was the female presence behind the camera: the source novel was by Melanie Joosten and Cate Shortland was at the helm.
With that in mind, you would expect a more feminine take on what was essentially a sick rape fantasy dressed up in suspense yarn trappings, though as it played there did not appear to be much difference between how Fowles and Wyler had approached the kidnap victim and how this later effort did. The main alteration was to keep the audience in the dark as to the motives of Andi (Riemelt) for as long as possible, though as the publicity made it clear this was thriller territory we were in, it might have been difficult to go in to this tale entirely innocent of its eventual premise. After Andi has taken Clare home to his apartment, alarm bells should have been ringing after he locked her in.
But that first day her lack of freedom seemed like an oversight, oops, I forgot to give you a key, that sort of affair, so Clare shrugs it off, grateful for the company if nothing else, though the something else is the occasional steamy sex scene which quickly sours any potential for eroticism when you realise what a nasty game Andi is playing. It's a long game too - as hours turn to days, the days turn to weeks, and seasons change, so that there may have been those who noticed Clare missing (her mother back in Brisbane for one), but there are no neighbours to hear her cries and nobody visits the apartment block, which aside from that one place is abandoned. As our heroine discovers, her host has accounted for every eventuality, therefore she cannot even break a window to escape: reinforced glass, you see.
With winter drawing on, as you might reason Berlin Syndrome was a chilly, grey-looking film that could very well be difficult to like if you were not captivated by the protagonist's state of peril, particularly as we did not really get to know her too well, the character being informed by her dilemma rather than her interactions. In fact, we found out more about Andi, following him from his work as an English teacher at a high school to his home life with his elderly father, which was odd since you would have expected with a female director and writer we should have been more invested in Clare. Maybe they fell into the trap of believing their villain was a richer prospect for drama than the victim, maybe they simply wished to explore the modern paranoia that the nice guy or girl who chats you up as you hit it off is actually a raging psychopath, but the results were austere and psychological as befitting the antagonist's personality. It was also, with the substantial introduction, a good degree too long to sustain itself, though Palmer and Riemelt's interplay justified the time to an extent. Music by Bryony Marks.
[Curzon's Blu-ray has a featurette and trailer as extras.]