When I was seven I accidentally locked myself in an old wardrobe. The handle broke and my dad had to unhinge the door to get me out. For years I couldn’t fathom anything worse than being trapped alone – albeit for less than an hour – in a dark confined space; to me it seemed like a pretty accurate depiction of Hell.
Clare Shortland’s latest thriller, Berlin Syndrome, (based on Melanie Joosten’s novel) takes this universal fear of being trapped to amplify notions of male dominance and control as a sexual encounter between an Australian tourist and a German school teacher turns into an abusive abduction.
The film opens with Clare (Teressa Palmer), a somewhat painfully clichéd Australian backpacker, wandering the streets of Berlin in search of something which she certainly isn’t going to find. What she does find is Andi (Max Riemelt): a handsome and chatty local who offers her handpicked strawberries from a cardboard container. A courtship ensues, which a) if you hadn’t watched the trailer, and b) if you were deaf and couldn’t hear the ominous overlays of music, you might have thought was going to settle into a nice little romance. Well, it’s not.
Clare and Andi’s brief but electric flirtations culminate in them driving back to his place: a tidy and well-maintained apartment nestled in-between hundreds of abandoned rooms in a dilapidated building. In the following scenes Shortland delicately conveys the vulnerable urgency in which two strangers blindly succumb to their sexual desires. The luminous skin on skin action in his alienating apartment is a ravishing, yet romanticised, depiction of a one-night-stand. There’s no awkward fumbling as clothes are removed, no chitchat about condoms or contraceptives, and there’s certainly no insecurities regarding body image (although when is there in films). It seems like they’ve executed one of the most successful sexual encounters of the millennia until Andi goes to work and Clare realises she’s actually been taken prisoner by this charming German stranger. Suddenly getting your head caught in a turtleneck or scrambling through drawers for a spare condom seems relatively harmless, even fun, by comparison.
Try as she might, Clare can’t break open the impenetrable locks or windows in Andi’s apartment. Her attempts to do so see her tied to a bed and a plastic sheet is placed under her to stop urine and faeces staining the mattress. But hey, Andi’s making pesto for dinner so it’s not all bad. Eventually Clare’s able to roam around the apartment (save the room that Andi keeps locked) and settle into her new hostage lifestyle.
Perhaps surprisingly, this lifestyle is not inclusive of sexual exploitation. Clare sustains physical and psychological damage throughout but, as far as we know, Andi never forces himself on her. This I think is the most poignant aspect of the film. It makes Andi’s horrifying abuse of power seem eerily familiar when we consider the ways in which some men still justify enforcing archaic gender roles in heterosexual relationships. For Andi it’s blatantly immoral to rape a woman, he wouldn’t do that to Clare, and yet he refuses to consider her imprisonment, and therefore his control over her, as inherently wrong. He doesn’t want to harm Clare. In a twisted way he justifies the sincerity of their ‘relationship’ through acts of misguided kindness: he only hurts her out of necessity when she tries to escape. He cooks for her, washes her body, trims her hair and cuts her nails, yet he still has an egregious sense of entitlement where he believes he has a right to own her. Obviously this is a hyperbolic and extreme depiction of male dominance but it’s relatable enough to draw parallels between the power imbalance in conventional relationships.
Because there’s only two possible outcomes for Clare – she either escapes or she doesn’t – the middle of the film needs to build suspense in other ways. This is achieved by creating various moments of potential freedom which culminate in blood spilled failure. The classic pitfall of horror films is when a victim stabs or injures their captor instead of just killing them. Unfortunately Clare’s first attempt at escape sees her stab Andi in the hand with a screwdriver and although cinematically the execution of the scene is technically flawless it’s predictably frustrating to watch.
Arguably a large portion of the tension in the body of the film should also be accredited to Palmer, who daringly underplays Clare. The further into the film you get, the less you seem to understand Clare’s motivations. She never fully submits to victimihood and most of her processing is internalised, which makes it unclear as to whether or not she actually has Stockholm Syndrome (as the title would suggest). Palmer veers away from playing the female prisoner as a hysterical victim by making conflicted gestures towards her captor. You never really know if she does come to empathise with Andi or if she’s only pretending to do so. Similarly Riemelt diverges from the classic villain but his character falls flat when we learn his mother abandoned him at a young age. Obviously he was psychologically scared from his mother leaving his father and he does not want the same fate for himself. But the reasons for his motivation become unnecessarily direct and overt.
I’d say my younger self had it wrong in thinking that the worst thing that could happen to a person is being trapped alone, and perhaps Sartre had it right when he wrote that hell is other people. Though for me, the most harrowing notion is that bolts and locks may not be needed for someone to become a prisoner in a relationship. This isn’t to say that the film will deter you from pursuing a passionate night of frivolous sex—it won’t—although it might make you second-guess the house in which you choose to do so. And if you were thinking about going to the movies for a first date, I probably wouldn’t recommend seeing Berlin Syndrome.