That cinema is yet to comes to terms with women is a Zeitgeist conversation. Director Cate Shortland’s third film, Berlin Syndrome (based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Melanie Joosten) is a story of gendered abuse and arrives at an opportune moment to shape this conversation. Although it aspires to be a dreamstruck thriller (and has some spine-shivering moments) the film’s vision of trauma and survival falls short of the ambition of recent screen stories exploring similar terrain.
Clare, played by Teresa Palmer, is a naive, young Australian and aspiring photographer looking for a life experience. Overseas for the first time, she is alone in Berlin to document its brutal architecture and, implicitly, the bravery of those who lived in the muck of the former German Democratic Republic’s oppression. But Clare finds herself the victim of unthinkable oppression, when a shy, sweet man called Andi becomes her lover and then her captor, locking her in his apartment indefinitely after their otherwise idyllic holiday fling.
Berlin is an ideal backdrop to this sort of story. Still cleaved by the warring ideologies of the 21st Century, the ghost of the GDR gives Clare’s character a geography of disappointment to capture with her camera, and the film a backdrop of surveillance and paranoia.
Once Clare’s imprisonment and Andi’s sociopathy are established, the narrative divides into twin strands. The first is life through Andi’s viewpoint. As he goes about his days as a school teacher, we learn the deeper realities of his depravity. And the second carries us further into Clare’s story as she formulates ways to escape.
In a strange way, Berlin Syndrome lags behind the current cultural conversation, now hinged more tightly around feminist issues.
Shortland is at her best as a filmmaker when the syndrome to which the title alludes kicks in. We come to understand the psychological effect of a hostage’s isolation; of why Clare might apologise to and embrace her torturer, and perhaps to accept her fate. The film does a good job of showing how Andi’s control masquerades, at least to him, as a form of care: he is Clare’s only human contact; he trims her nails, showers her and makes her pasta.
In a strange way, Berlin Syndrome lags behind the current cultural conversation, now hinged more tightly around feminist issues. Shortland’s interest has always been girls on the cusp of something – womanhood, a loss of innocence, a leap forward in identity. Her first film, Somersault, was a small story of awakened sexuality and adult responsibility, and though it was a hit at the time with its own rich visual cinematic language, it feels too mired in the indie production values of 2004 to have held a lasting effect.
To my mind, Lore (2012) is the most effective of Shortland’s three films to date, as the story of its female protagonist is deliberately aligned to a broader historical continuum: our heroine Lore’s betrayal as a young woman is shown to be tied up with the betrayal of the German people during Hitler’s time. But that film, like Berlin Syndrome, revealed Shortland’s shortcomings as a filmmaker. She is at her best creating full, real, storytelling universes seen wholly from the viewpoint of her central characters and full of the tiniest details — in this case, the low winter light of Berlin, the airlessness of Andi’s apartment — but her films work best as introspective arthouse dramas rather than the slowpulsing thrillers they aspire to be. Shortland tries to build a series of creeping moments toward an ambient anxiety, and the film’s climax is indeed adrenalised, but the rhythm and pacing creates an atmosphere of drugged lethargy rather than slow burn.
I watched Berlin Syndrome in the same week as the finale of Jean-Marc Vallee’s HBO series Big Little Lies, and the latter deals with very similar themes in ways that are both stronger and more delicate. The series deceptively commenced as a kind of high-gloss, prestige Desperate Housewives sequel. But then it morphed into something more suffused with the disappointments and compromises of not-quite-right relationships and the fantasies that keep those relationships alive. Big Little Lies’ source material was also Australian (from the novel by Liane Moriarty), but it was far more nuanced and sensitive in exploring the way that sexism and the enforcement of gender roles manifest in our lives; in the endless interpersonal adjustments between men and women. The cast of characters in Big Little Lies all represented the various ways in which women attempt to wrestle control over their lives in a society that is essentially hostile to their gender. That structural choice — to have a host of characters and their subplots exploring variations of the similar gendered problems — is what’s lacking in Berlin Syndrome, which is almost purely linear in its plot progression, to the exclusion of fuller ideas and experiences against which Clare’s could have been seen.
(The film’s) universes and inner worlds of its characters are fully realised, but its story and ideas never fully convince.
Big Little Lies forensically pulled apart gender in the context of ordinary relationships rather than heinous pathology, and it had a certain neurotic power and sad comedy as a result. Not only was its humour drenched in black, it knew that a woman’s most dangerous figure is likely to be her own husband, rather than a psychopathic stranger. In Berlin Syndrome, its writer Shaun Grant’s (Snowtown) script opts to elaborate on the darker elements of Andi’s pathology, but the film is better when it’s more subtly suggestive: when, instead of lingering of Clare’s naked body in bed, it focuses on her face as Andi makes her pose for him, drawing attention to the disjuncture between her so-called sexy poses and the distress evident in her expression.
Given how screen treatment of gender has developed, it feels a little like Shortland’s directorial vision has stalled. Berlin Syndrome presents a fictive reality: the universes and inner worlds of its characters are fully realised, but its story and ideas never fully convince. It’s not arthouse enough to be arthouse, nor thriller enough to be a thriller.
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READ AN EXTRACT OF MELANIE JOOSTEN’S NOVEL BERLIN SYNDROME HERE