Sundance 2017: Berlin Syndrome, by David Bax

Between Cate Shortland’s harrowing new film Berlin Syndrome and 2015’s Victoria, there’s a new trope developing. Foreigners in Berlin who attend rooftop parties are certain to get into some kind of trouble. As least their plights continue to make for good movies.

Teresa Palmer stars as Clare, an Australian on a solo trip through Germany, who meets Andi (Max Riemelt), who teaches English to high schoolers. What starts as a passionate but run of the mill vacation fling soon turns dire for Clare when she finds one day that she can’t leave Andi’s apartment and he intends to keep it that way.

Shortland is careful to introduce the darkness into her story gradually. The pair’s meet-cute is just that and the early stages of flirtation and courtship sweep you up in their charms. Soon, however, uncertainty and danger creep in–a close-up of a car door locking; a circuitous route through a nearly abandoned neighborhood. By the time we get to the first sex scene, so many foreboding notes have been introduced to Bryony Marks’ score that the audience feels a dissonant tension that Clare can’t. Palmer and Riemelt have terrific chemistry and Shortland employs it not just to make their initial attraction palpable but to deepen the emotional impact of what’s to come.

Berlin Syndrome is, as the title hints, also a movie about the city itself. Clare has come to photograph the now-crumbling architecture of the German Democratic Republic, revenants and reminders of a time when the city was divided. Not that the citizens need to be reminded. Defections led to families being torn apart and the reunification of Germany did not reunite all of the people. These largely empty buildings are specters, haunting Berlin’s inhabitants with the memories they contain.

As those descriptions suggest, Berlin Syndrome is in many ways a type of horror movie; you may even feel the desire to shout “Run!” at the screen. And it would be ignoring the elephant in the room not to point out that, in addition to its political and historical themes, this is also a movie about the same thing that many, many other horror movies are about. It’s about misogyny. Shortland diagrams the absurd, contradictory and dehumanizing rules that a patriarchal society sets for its female contingent. While one young woman is chastised by Andi for making a spectacle of herself in tight clothing, he also makes clear to Clare that being a spectacle is to be a part of her duties, so long as it is for his enjoyment only. As long as men wield outsized control over society and even a few of them subscribe to these cruel and oppressive ways of thinking, every woman will continue to live in a potential horror movie.

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