Infatuation and conflict in "Berlin Syndrome"
What does it feel like when you're an Australian in Berlin watching an Australian film at the Berlinale about an Australian in Berlin? Or, when one of the first lines of dialogue spoken poses a question about your home town: "Brisbane, where the f*#k is that?", Clare (Teresa Parker) is asked by a fellow traveller. In “Berlin Syndrome”, director Cate Shortland creates a bond with anyone in a similar situation from the outset, capturing the movie’s titular city with the wide-eyed discovery of a tourist eager to feast upon every sight imaginable. In its early scenes, the enthusiasm plastered across Clare's face as she explores the Berlin streets, almost incessantly capturing images as both a tourist and a photographer along the way, is brought to the screen with relatable wonder.
So it is that backpacker Clare keeps spying the Berliner Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz from wherever she happens to be around Berlin. Gleefully enjoying being abroad, she's fascinated with the GDR architecture evident at every turn, as her happy snapping demonstrates. And, she's drawn to looking at strangers, peering at different routines, behaviour, faces and glimpses of life in a place far removed from home. Shortland infuses her third feature (following Somersault and Lore) with openness in her lingering visuals that match Clare’s eager attitude, with everything in view seemingly alive with possibilities. As the main thrust of the narrative kicks in, however, that's where most parallels between the conflict-driven movie and the watching audience will end — even for a Brisbanite viewing the film in Berlin.
Plunging into horror territoryInstead, as Clare meets schoolteacher Andi (Max Riemelt), connects, and decides not to hurry off to the next city on her itinerary so that they can spend more time together, Berlin Syndrome strips away the expanses first seen and possibilities initially felt, trading them for a constricting, restrictive experience loaded with foreshadowing moments. After spending the night in Andi's apartment in an otherwise rundown, vacant building, Clare awakes to find the front door locked, no key in the vicinity, her phone sans SIM card and leaving not an option, even when he returns and she begs, pleads and questions. Soon, she realises that she’s his prisoner. That feeling of being immersed not only in a new location, but a new world, disappears abruptly. Pretending to dutifully and happily play house is her new reality. And so, in support, Shortland once again offers up images that reflect Clare’s confined, abused, mental, emotional and physical state, this time favouring the closed-in and the insular.
Accordingly, what begins in travelogue-like fashion as a seeming self-exploratory jaunt plunges into bleak, compelling horror territory, though the way the film continues to flirt with the two — Clare still looks longingly outside at her new surroundings; on a rare excursion out with Andi, she relishes the scenery; more than occasionally, she willingly embraces him, rather than merely obligingly or through force — muddies their boundaries with purpose. And, with Shortland directing a script by Snowtown's Shaun Grant that adapts Melanie Joosten’s novel of the same name, straddling complicated terrain is its main aim. The feature morphs from loving to threatening in mood, and infatuated to anxious in feel, recognising not just how one extreme can become another so quickly, but the elasticity between and complexity inherent in the two. In the process, as Clare is caught fighting for her freedom yet sometimes finds her attraction to Andi still flickering, she does the same.