Berlin Syndrome's villain is Mr Wrong On Every Level

It is regrettable that the psychology of the abuser takes precedence in Cate Shortland's shock thriller.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“How do you think this is going, from one to ten?” says Andi (Max Riemelt) to Clare (Teresa Palmer) in Berlin Syndrome, as they take a stroll in the woods. He is referring to their relationship, which is several months old: he is a local teacher, she a dreamy Australian backpacker who extends her initial stay in Berlin after meeting him and then simply never leaves.

Not that she has much say in the matter. Waking up alone after their first night together, she finds the door to his apartment locked. When he returns that evening, she upbraids him gently for his oversight while being careful not to spoil the mood. No harm done. Not yet. And, as he points out to her while he prepares dinner for them, she can walk out of the flat freely right now if she so desires.

He leaves her a key the next morning, only it doesn’t work. Clare switches her phone on but the sim card has been removed. She smashes a window with a chair, only to find a thicker, unbreakable pane behind it. It’s around this point that she starts to suspect Andi may not be Mr Right so much as Mr Wrong On Every Level.

No one could accuse the director, Cate Shortland, or Shaun Grant (who adapted Melanie Joosten’s novel) of skimping on the foreshadowing. The first image is a close-up of Clare’s backpack with its various straps and cords, which we will remember once Andi has her lashed to his bed. There is a striking wide shot of her surveying Berlin from the roof of a block of flats, her body almost disappearing into the tangled urban labyrinth.

A dog barks at her and a car honks furiously when she steps into its path; it’s as though the city itself is trying to warn her. There are also hints that she is trapped in a fairy tale. Andi struggles to find the word “dwarf” in his vocabulary; Clare discovers a wolf mask in the street. And that walk in the forest might seem romantic to the casual observer if only Andi weren’t carrying an axe with him, like the huntsman leading Snow White off to be killed.

Shortland is a confident director who works sensitively with actors but it isn’t clear from Berlin Syndrome that she has ­anything to say, beyond the obvious observation that it sucks to be held captive, and the more insulting point that we all choose our own jailers. It is certainly regrettable that the psychology of the abuser takes precedence. We see excerpts from Andi’s life (he works, plays chess with his father, attends a New Year party) and receive banal explanations for his behaviour (his mother abandoned him and now he will make sure that no woman ever leaves again) but we learn next to nothing about Clare.

Palmer gives a measured performance, particularly when she is trying to disguise her distress for fear of seeming uncool or uptight, but Clare’s purpose is increasingly reduced to spotting new opportunities for escape or evidence of her captor’s past crimes. Like any movie psychopath worth his salt, Andi keeps a scrapbook, so it’s not long before Clare realises that he has form as a kidnapper. There is a grim twist on that stock scene in which the jealous girlfriend finds on her lover’s clothes a single, incriminating hair. In this instance, it is a whole blonde clump that Clare, a redhead, produces from the plughole.

The likes of Room and The Collector have shown that films about forced imprisonment need not be deficient in dramatic scope. The range of responses open to viewers of Berlin Syndrome, however, stretches only from discomfort to dread. That might be acceptable if the film did not pretend, with its attempts to link Andi’s behaviour to his thoughts about pre-unification Germany, to be aspiring to a more elevated mode of discourse.

At heart, it is merely a dishonest revamp of Rob Reiner’s shlock thriller Misery, right down to the all-important Gruesome ­Injury scene: broken ankles in Misery, broken fingers and screwdriver stigmata in Berlin Syndrome. Reiner’s film is terrific fun to watch with a crowd – you might say company loves Misery – whereas no one who sees Shortland’s movie will be minded to inflict it on their friends, or much thanked if they do. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special