‘Berlin Syndrome’ and the Struggle of Civilising the Antisocial

Director Cate Shortland assuredly rides along on her protagonist's raw desperation, crafting a nightmarish and visceral experience off-centre of mainstream filmmaking.

American novelist David Mitchell cynically said: “Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting.”As people it is a fundamental truth that we are defined by our interactions, by our encounters, and as the old adage goes: “No man is an island.” Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome (2016) is another tale in the filmmaker’s oeuvre that centralises the encounter as a defining narrative event. From a young Australian woman’s momentary and turbulent relationships with men in Somersault (2004), to 2012’s Lore and the encounters that define a teenager’s journey through WWII Germany, Shortland now unites the Australian and the Germanic in Berlin Syndrome.

Following a night of romance with Andi (Max Riemelt), Australian tourist Clare (Teresa Palmer) finds herself captive in his Berlin apartment. Here is not so much a critique of first impressions, but a cautionary tale of the conflict of “want”. Clare’s sense of excitement and adventure is made dangerous by the blinding lust of this chance encounter in a foreign city. But once the light catches Andi’s true persona, it gives way to a dark reality of a struggle between his “want” to possess versus her “want” of a brief tryst.

The film’s strength of presence is one not easily attributed to a single individual either in front of or behind the camera. It’s hinged upon the collaboration between Shortland and her two leads, creating a potent sense of friction that begins with Andi’s superficial civility, offset by his possessive nature. It’s the the act of civilising the antisocial, or giving it a false façade. Our reaction or feelings towards him touch us on a deeper level that avoids the superficial response of a visceral dislike. Instead, a calmer sense of disquiet overcomes us as we learn of his past experience of abandonment, unhealed scars that provoke the monstrous to erupt and disrupt his present.

This image of the educated teacher whose psyche is blighted by the monstrous is enhanced through the focal point of literature in his apartment. The shelves of books, of Clare reading and Andi teaching his literature class echoes the nature of a relationship — the response of the reader gives meaning to a book while being simultaneously touched by the experience. Of course it’s not identical to the process of a relationship, of two people opening themselves up to learn about one another, but it offers an intriguing metaphor, as Berlin Syndrome is about an attempt to forcefully possess a person’s love, unlike the reciprocative relationship between the reader and literature. It’s with Shortland’s meticulous eye for detail that the film is enriched with a symbolic subtlety, one that creates two levels of consciousness — the sub-conscious of spatial symbolism opposite the consciousness of character.

In hindsight, Andi and Clare are frozen in time, existing in a silent pose, not a still image, but one in which they are silently self-sufficient. Palmer in particular moves majestically between subtlety and the visceral — discovering her own inner friction. The loud moments of physical anxiety amidst guttural cries are offset by an anxious quiet, the sound of her breathing communicating her distress. The portrait image alone of Clare captures the ugliness of aesthetic beauty — a woman once full of vitality withering through the suffocation of her captivity. It’s one that is heartbreakingly beautiful, yet is enhanced by Shortland opening up the dimensions of the film to offset her wilting protagonist with a film blooming through the marriage of performance and direction.

The use of slow motion draws our attention to the contradiction of how life is always moving forward, yet it can seemingly stand still, which is Clare’s experience, whose life has been brought to a sudden halt. It’s a device that creates a series of moments that require the audience to pick up on the inferences of the story. It’s not the only example in Berlin Syndrome, as Shortland, Riemelt and Palmer all understand the importance of the gentle approach. It’s one that can be likened to a musical collaboration; the director the conductor and the actors the musicians. Together they work to discover the precision of expression to allow the inner ideas of the story that same freedom. Such moments nourish the film’s silent and symbolic sub-conscious, and for an audience, offers moments of deep immersion and connection in which we become collaborative authors.

Teresa Palmer as Clare

Thematically Berlin Syndrome looks to our innate vulnerability within the folds of which Clare experiences the danger of becoming insignificant. This is in spite of being held as dear in Andi’s gaze or thought of as such by her mother who is unaware of her plight. A narrative of survival, its contemplation of this primitive instinct breaks down on the meta when Clare, in order to survive, becomes the author of her own submissive character. It creates a rendezvous not only with the idea of identity as self-made but alongside Andi’s forceful attempt to tame her resistance, it feeds into a conflict between sub-conscious desire and conscious awareness. While he has the “want” to believe that she is being subjugated, even asking her in one scene to score how she thinks it’s going, he’s aware of the truth. There’s an element of a rehearsal period for Clare to convincingly perform her role as his girlfriend, a point at which she shares the fate of those who came before her, or she survives.

Some of the most suspenseful moments are discovered in this fractious ontology. The film’s title is an obvious reference to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ (the feelings of affection a victim can feel towards their captor), and rather beautifully Shortland, Riemelt and Palmer express a sense of humanism in moments that never feel exploitative, but true. Riemelt and Palmer express a sense of humanism in moments that never feel exploitative, but true. These touches lend an emotional authenticity, comfortable in those emotional shades of grey. As a piece of filmmaking Berlin Syndrome is an example of the film structure as one of layers, building on the offsetting forces of symbolism and character with the thematic and emotion. Yet at its heart, there’s the contemplation of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s belief in the emptiness that comes with the fulfilment of desire. While Clare is contextualised as a warning to the dangers of the fulfilment of “want”, Andi warns of the dangers of the pursuit.

In spite of the complimentary collaboration, the enduring memory is of Palmer’s heartbreakingly beautiful performance, baring her soul with absolute authenticity. It recalls the cultural belief that a photograph can steal a part of a person’s soul, and so evocative is her incarnation of Clare, one almost feels that Palmer gave up a part of her soul.

Berlin Syndrome progresses slowly, never dramatically gratuitous or exploitative of the inherent drama of its story. Rather, Shortland assuredly rides along on her protagonist’s raw desperation, crafting a nightmarish and visceral experience that counters precise categorisation. It neither feels authentically arthouse, nor mainstream. Here is a film off-centre, working contrary to our inherent inclination to brand an experience, and as the credits roll, the dreamlike aesthetic of the closing images leaves us with the lingering impression of having experienced a dream. It’s a final moment that witnesses a perfect collaboration of performance, cinematography, and direction. To walk away with this sense of feeling almost seems fitting for a film about “want”, and the dream and nightmare of that which we desire.

RATING 7 / 10