A thinly disguised metaphor for East Germans living under the Socialist regime, Berlin Syndrome is trying so hard to say so many things that it is difficult to hear the woman in the midst. Calling it ‘Berlin Syndrome’ says one thing. Setting it in multi-cultural ‘Berlin’ says another. Setting it in the Eastern part of the city with its GDR-relic, emptied buildings says yet another; as does ending it along Brandenburg gate, with all it stood for.
And really, it isn’t even necessary. For, on its own, the talented Shortland has taken the scary scenario of a woman kept imprisoned by a man and crafted out of it a film with an acute sense of foreboding. Palmer and Riemelt, as Clare and Andi, act in tandem with her genteel pace, their fears more experienced than acted out. This doesn’t always serve the film well, but it keeps viewers always apprehensive of the unexpected.
Clare is an Australian photographer who has come to Berlin on a whim and a shoe-string budget, and is interested in GDR architecture. Andi is an English teacher at a school who runs into her at a traffic junction, strikes a conversation over strawberries, and instantly establishes a connection. They head to his home in what would have been East Berlin, and spend a sensual, passionate night together. The next morning, Andi leaves for work, and Clare realises, to her pleasant surprise and then growing shock, that she has been locked inside a house with a bar across the door and fortified windows, and with the SIM of her phone taken out.
Shortland, adapting a critically acclaimed novel by Melanie Joosten, focuses on a lot of things after this — Clare’s growing frustration, Andi’s increasing unpredictability, his father and mother and East Berlin issues (“defected” is a word he barks out at one point), and even the snow and Christmas trees outside. Could Clare also care for Andi despite herself, and especially enjoy the sex, Shortland has lesser success establishing. The pace is so unhurried, and Shortland captures so much of the passing time in slow motion and caressing visuals, that it takes away from how humiliating her situation is for Clare.
Shortland has talked of her film as an exploration of a relationship, and of ingrained ideas of sexuality among women, acquired through fairy tales such as Snow White, Rapunzel, Beauty and Beast etc where heroines are kept in confinement.
Berlin Syndrome would have been a better film if we could see that. We can’t.