Movie Review: 'Berlin Syndrome' (2017)

When Clare (Teresa Palmer), an Australian photographer visiting Berlin meets Andi (Max Riemelt), a teacher at a local school, a palpable chemistry quickly develops between them. They spend time together, briefly getting to know one other before lust, fully consumes them.

After their latest night together, Claire tries to leave her lover's apartment. The door is locked and she cannot find a key to open it. She then slowly realizes the terrifying truth. Andi is not going to let her leave his isolated apartment. She is his prisoner.

Thus begins a tortuous standoff of mental warfare. Its title clearly alludes to the famous psychological syndrome experienced by kidnap victims (Stockholm syndrome), and “Berlin Syndrome” toys with whether the victim portrayed in its film is suffering from it or not.

These are the many mysteries of “Berlin Syndrome,” and its harrowing tale of abduction and everything that goes along with it. As a story that has sadly been seen in the headlines, it is hard to disengage from the vile reality that these things actually happen. Teresa Palmer’s devastating performance as Clare realizes she has become one of those headlines is brutally felt.

Director Cate Shortland takes a while getting to all of this. Opting for a slow build that could lose potential viewers, unable to tolerate the long wait for something to happen. Once the story gets moving though, it does not let up. It features tedium with a purpose.

“Berlin Syndrome,” while graphic in some areas, remains rather elusive as to certain respects of its story. For instance, what is keeping a “Room” scenario from playing out? Maybe Melanie Joosten’s novel from which the movie is adapted provides more answers.

As the diabolical Andi, actor Max Riemelt brings an extraordinary nuance to the disturbing character. It is one of the more frightening performances of its kind, due to its disquietingly layered portrayal. An evil person is often hard to recognize, shielded in ordinary vagueness and wrapped in an oft-charming veneer. Riemelt chillingly brings this point home.

[Image by Entertainment One]
As the film progresses, it is this issue that becomes the most problematic. As much as you want to see Clare survive, you equally desire to see her serve Andi his comeuppance. It is a hope that seems to unceremoniously drift away from the narrative's focus.

To say that is frustrating would be an understatement and it is this lack of vengeful anger that draws away some of the film's punch. Albeit, one has to acknowledge it is staying true to what its title suggests is the story running throughout its cold veins.

As a two-hander that is sprinkled with supporting characters, “Berlin Syndrome” prominently relies on Riemelt and Palmer to shoulder the film, and they do so with exemplary skill. This is not an easy movie to watch and Riemelt and Palmer do not shy away from it for a second. Their commitment is felt throughout the film and it owes its successful resonance to their turns.

As “Berlin Syndrome” approaches its dizzying denouement, how the events of the film will conclude becomes a sickening question to ponder. There is no sense of safety for Clare, an element that has not been as tensely captured since Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners.”

“Berlin Syndrome” outperforms a lot of its peers with how it approaches its material and the performances of its leads are just as, if not more, commendable than those that have been met with popular acclaim. 

Unlike its peers, the film does not rely on reducing its characters’ intelligence to continue the story, and it is that angle which makes it all the more terrifying. A dark story with sharp narrative teeth and meticulous performances, “Berlin Syndrome” is a movie that leaves a lasting impression.

Rating: 7.5/10

[Featured Image by Entertainment One]