Although Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome presents us with a familiar premise – a young girl being held prisoner by a charming psychopath of sorts – the execution on hand is anything but typical. Downplaying any overt exploitation angle and instead focusing in on the characters at hand, what could have been presented as a torture-porn thriller ultimately plays out as an emotionally investing drama, one that frequently burns slow only to hit you where it hurts the most.
Delivering her strongest performance yet, Teresa Palmer dominates every frame she appears in with an honest, understated grace that only furthers the audience’s emotional investment in her eventual plight. Every so often we are given drops of information as to why her Clare has upped and left her hometown of Brisbane, Australia for a trek of solitude in Berlin, but it’s evident that whatever piece of her life is missing, her meeting Andi (Max Riemelt) is enough to awaken her both emotionally and physically.
The initial scenes of courtship between Clare and Andi are actually quite charming, with both Palmer and Riemelt exuding natural chemistry, and their first sexual encounter jolts the film into a temporary state of eroticism. It isn’t long though before the playful banter between them leads to a more grisly reality, one where Clare can’t leave Andi’s house. Though Andi initially dismisses Clare’s “captive” state as being nothing more than a misplacement of her house key, Clare soon learns she’s a prisoner in his house, and as much as the film hints at adopting a cat-and-mouse mentality, screenwriter Shaun Grant appears more focused on studying these characters rather than stereotyping them.
As a non-conforming genre film Berlin Syndrome may prove to be too much of an arthouse piece for horror aficionados (the violent content is seldom, though it admittedly makes an impact when presented) but similarly too mainstream for the art crowd, leaving this still-immensely-effective-production to survive on its own agenda. Constantly refusing to travel down a structured plot-road, Berlin Syndrome is as sophisticated as it is unnerving, though regardless of how you respond to the film itself there’s no denying that Palmer’s performance is stunning, and likely to remain one of the strongest female turns we’ll see all year.