Review: Berlin Syndrome is a survival story
In a place that is not our own when everything feels unfamiliar and strange, we inhabit foreign spaces as travellers wading through uncertainty, trying to understand who we are. Wanderlust enchants the lonely with the possibility of adventure, danger and self discovery but sometimes it can all go horribly wrong.
Directed by Cate Shortland, Berlin Syndrome tells of the complex relationship that emerges between Australian photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer) and charismatic Berlin local Andi (Max Riemelt), in which initial attraction between the two becomes fatal when Clare finds herself locked in Andi’s apartment unable to escape.
In a foreign city of strangers, Clare’s trusting nature reveals a vulnerability in her character which is hinted upon at the start of the film. She chooses to accept a drink from a group of strangers gathered at a balcony across from her the place she is staying, spends the night drinking with them, tells a stranger her name after meeting him on the street, lets him drive her home in his locked car, and decides upon making love with this stranger in his apartment a few days after they’ve met. There are obvious alarm bells that are raised here but something to note is that, despite her badly made choices, Clare’s character is vulnerable but never weak.
Berlin Syndrome is a survival story, and while ‘thrilling’ would not be the right word for this dramatic feature, it’s more adequate to consider the representation of the young female traveler, Clare and how her choices as a character may shape certain perceptions from a viewing audience in regards to the situation in which she has found herself.
Mckicking’s camerawork uses a shallow depth of field, handheld shots, and closeups which blur the lines between the seeking out of thrilling adventure and visiting of private spaces where people hold hidden identities that aren’t revealed until the final moments. As an audience we are made mere observers, following the camera as it slowly moves throughout spaces observing the situation from a distance through the use of wide angles which create space and depth, showing the isolation felt by both Clare and Andi. The use of dark empty spaces flooded with light create silhouettes that outline the shape of the main characters and create contrasts which, at first, seem simple; both characters crave intimacy and this is made known by their initial attraction and eventual dependancy upon one another. Andi cares for her, clips her toenails, cuts her hair, washes her, photographs her, cooks her pasta and treats her as a prized possession that he keeps hidden away removing any chance of her escaping his locked apartment. Over time, an isolated Clare is given the intimacy she desires, mainly from Andi as her only human contact and, after a while, she too conforms to her role as Andi’s partner nay objectified female plaything as perceived by Andi.
It’s easy to become desensitised and forget the human aspect both characters hold, but Shortland reminds us of this through little backstories that makes us less critical and more open to empathy. We shift from Clare’s perspective to Andi’s as the film progresses, Clare’s identity is stolen by Andi, who takes her valuables – including a necklace that belonged to her mother – which provide her with a sense of identity and remind her what is to be human.
More than just Clare’s captor, Andi’s character is complex and hidden under the ruse of a well respected teacher, but socially withdrawn community member. His backstory, which includes the portrayal of his relationship with his father, leads us to emphasise with him despite his wrongdoings. It’s hard to think of Andi as merely a monster or Clare as merely the victim.
Considering that Berlin Syndrome was written and directed from a female perspective, it’s hard to simply categorise the story as exploitative or degrading of women in its portrayal of abuse. To me it speaks of the fear that many females may have in travelling alone. It feels strange to consider what can be learnt from the story of Clare’s misfortune, but despite the overly dramatic representation, there is an innate fear many carry that relates to the shifting power dynamic between two parties, the suppressed and the oppressed. There is an explicit objectification of Clare, the young female traveller as a highly sexualised being placed in situations that leave her vulnerable and open to exploitation and abuse from Andi. It feels surreal, seems difficult to stomach and audiences become somewhat desensitised to her mistreatment, unable to believe it.
When strong female characters are portrayed on screen, the strength of a female character is one which is rooted in determination and resistance rather than her physical strength. It’s one of survival, of endurance and of resistance. I’d like to believe that Clare shows these characteristics in Berlin Syndrome, refusing to give up on herself despite the circumstances and this leads to her grow in strength of character as the film reaches its conclusion.
Words by Addy Fong.