February 8, 2018
1 Hr., 56 Mins.
erlin Syndrome (2017) is a relatively pointless, bleary-eyed exercise in captivity thriller clichés saved by two things: director Cate Shortland’s competent, stylistically interesting handling of the Shaun Grant-penned material, and leading actress Teresa Palmer’s paranoid, committedly white-knuckled performance. Take these crackerjack women away and you might find yourself in the presence of a just-okay latter-day attempt at what William Wyler perfected some five decades ago with The Collector (1965). Luckily, though, we have them locked and loaded, and the movie in store turns out to be a great deal
more optimistic – and action-packed – than its ‘65 predecessor. Just don’t expect anything new to come about during its 116-minute running time.
This overlong, kidnap-centric potboiler stars Palmer as Clare, an Aussie in Berlin who is, judging from her knapsack, unwashed clothes, and saucer eyes, a tourist trying out what confused people in their 20s do best: look for self-discovery. Presumably, the greasy-haired Clare has spontaneously packed up her things and set out on a makeshift trek across Germany, with only a fancy-pants camera by her side to keep her company.
As Berlin Syndrome opens, though, our lead’s feeling the negative effects of traveling alone for such a long period of time. She’s lonely, and pretty desperate for something or someone to bring her comfort in a land where no one speaks her language and where no one is really her friend.
Enter Andi (Max Riemel), a local man she strikes up a conversation with, notices is pleasant and genuinely interested in her, and finds to be reasonably attractive. She has every reason to think this nice guy’s at least a temporary keeper: he’s a schoolteacher, takes care of his ailing father in his free time, and jumps at the chance to show her around the city.
Against her better judgment, Clare decides to sleep with the guy (our mental alarms go off when we step inside his sparsely decorated apartment and he sexily remarks that no one will hear her there). We suppose she has no real reason to doubt Andi’s honesty; he has, after all, shown her nothing but kindness and normalcy since they first met. But when we’re entering a movie purported to be a thriller, we have plenty reason to be suspicious. The kooky bar hanging over Andi’s front door, as well as the fact that he’s apparently the only dude living in this sketchy complex, don’t help either.
In the morning after their silk-sheeted excursion, our suspicions turn out to have plenty weight to them. After Andi leaves for work, Clare notices that she’s locked in the apartment. She convinces herself that it was an accident – maybe Andi just forgot to leave behind a key. She sticks around for another night. But then the sun rises and Clare finds that her phone’s SIM card is missing. That all the windows are double-paned. That her boy toy’s scribbled “mine” on her back.
Following are captivity movie tropes aplenty. Clare tries out a number of clever ways to escape to no avail. Andi proves himself a slick sociopath who lives a creepily normal outside life away from his kidnapping one. There’s even a handful of uninvited pangs of sexual tension to keep things interesting. The situation gets progressively bizarre (Andi starts photographing Clare in various violently sexual poses in their days together, which eventually plays a part in the underwhelming climax).
We’ve seen it all before, and the movie is indubitably too long for one that has so little to say. It even tries to humanize Andi for a greater part of its length, which is a waste of time given how uninterested I am in trying to feel sympathy for a devil. But Shortland keeps us on our toes visually, and Palmer, one of her generation’s most interesting but underutilized actresses, remarkably commits herself to a role that perhaps isn’t worthy of her talents.
Trim off some of the fat and lean more heavily into Clare’s backstory than into Andi’s and maybe Berlin Syndrome’d be the tight, “most underrated of 2017”-list topper it’s so capable of being. But alas we’re left with a slightly blemished product that’s good but could be greater. C+