Berlin Syndrome

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/30/17 11:08:58

"The China Syndrome Was Less Toxic"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

After watching the first third or so of the grim psychological horror film “The Berlin Syndrome,” it seemed to me as if it was trying to approximate what might have occurred if “Before Sunrise” had been inexplicably placed in the brilliant but utterly unsuitable hands of Michael Haneke. After finally making my way through the rest of it, I changed my mind about that thought because if that had somehow happened, the results might have been ghastly but they almost certainly would have been interesting and both dramatically and psychologically sound. By comparison, this film is as grim and painful and nasty as can be but it is done in by a screenplay that is dramatically inert and focuses on two characters that it displays no particular interest or insight in.

Teresa Palmer stars as Clare, a shy backpacking Australian who has just landed in Berlin. One day, she meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a shy schoolteacher . Over the course of their initial meeting, a spark seems to grow between them as they discuss their mutual interests—architecture and photography—and are even mutually touched by the paintings of Klimt and that night, Clare goes back to his isolated apartment where, in a moment of abandon, she (and yes, I know I am ripping off “Back to School” here) lets him touch her Klimt. Unfortunately, her walk of shame is postponed when he leaves for work but fails to leave a key to let her out of his locked apartment. She is a bit annoyed, but not enough to skip out on some shower sex when he does return. The next day, however, not only does the same thing happen but she also discovers that the windows are double-paned and unbreakable and there are no sharp objects to be had inside at all. It is finally clear to her that Andi has no intentions of ever letting her go again.

On the surface, “The Berlin Syndrome” sounds like it could be a queasily effective drama in the manner of “The Collector” (1965), but it never really clicks. The screenplay by Shaun Green, adapting the novel by Melanie Joosten, is strangely uncurious about its two main characters. We learn virtually nothing about Clare’s personal history before landing in her situation and so we have no idea of how her captivity is changing her—when Andi starts photographing her bruised body and she starts twisting around into more overtly provocative poses, it seems to come from practically out of nowhere. While Clare is locked away, we spend a good amount of time with Andi as he tries to keep up appearances in the outside world but there is nothing particularly illuminating about this either (shocking, he seems to have some mommy issues). Finally, once all the details become set into place in the first half, the drama becomes increasingly repetitive and dull in the second before coming to its strangely rushed climaxed and while it is all presented with a certain degree of skill by director Cate Shortland (whose “Somersault” told another story of cruelty towards a young woman that was far more insightful) that nevertheless fails to make it anything more than a failed genre piece.

The actors are good, better than the parts they have been given, but unless you are trying to scare a young woman from traveling abroad, “The Berlin Syndrome” is a painfully unnecessary film.

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