Ever read a book that starts off beautifully, totally reels you in with a juicy, page-turning set-up, compelling characters with mood and menace to burn and then ends so badly that you almost wish you’d never finished reading it? Well, that’s kind of what watching Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland’s (Somersault, Lore) hugely compelling, if ultimately disappointing, Berlin Syndrome is like. And though Syndrome doesn’t really fizzle out until the third act, the climax is so unsatisfying that I almost wish I’d stopped watching midway through just to relish all the perfectly-calibrated genre awesomeness that came before.
Based on the 2011 novel by Melanie Joosten, Syndrome opens with Aussie photojournalist Clare (Hacksaw Ridge and Point Break’s Teresa Palmer) exploring the wonders of Berlin on an extended backpacking adventure. Enjoying the freedom of traveling alone for the first time, Clare’s holiday takes a wildly romantic turn when she crosses paths with a handsome schoolteacher named Andi (Sense8 and Before the Fall’s Max Riemelt) on the street near her hostel. Charming her with his wit and heavily accented English, Andi shows Clare the sights and the two end up spending the night together in his sprawling, run-down apartment in a mostly abandoned section of the former East Berlin.
But when Andi leaves for work the next morning, Clare awakens to discover that Andi has locked her inside the apartment and taken the keys. Playing it off as a simple mistake, Andi returns home with groceries for dinner and big plans for them as a couple, but Clare quickly realizes that the increasingly creepy Andi has no intention of ever letting her go and a game of tense, high stakes cat and mouse begins as she plots her escape.
Loaded with rich, intricately layered subtext and metaphors about everything from the thrill of newfound romance with a stranger in a strange land to the lack of personal freedom of any kind in GDR-era East Berlin, and the strangely erotic push and pull between captor and captive, Syndrome offers up a fresh, truly inspired take on the classic abduction thriller. And then, not unlike the wall itself, everything crumbles and goes, quite literally, to hell in a handbag. Or, more appropriately a lovesick German school girl’s notebook. But, either way, the film’s totally ridiculous ending aside, Syndrome has much to recommend about it.
Palmer is fantastic as Clare, especially when blurring the line between victim and willing participant in the film’s deeply disturbing second act, and Riemelt is downright revelatory as a stone cold sociopath desperate to rebuild the idyllic home life that was stolen from him when his mother defected to the West when he was a young boy. But Syndrome’s strongest element isn’t so much Shortland’s direction – which is excellent, by the way – but rather the film’s top-notch screenplay by award-winning The Snowtown Murders’ scribe Shaun Grant.
Constantly straddling the line between pulpy, borderline misogynistic horror-thriller and nuanced character study of two equally troubled souls, Grant elevates the material considerably. And though even he isn’t able to sell that clunker of an ending, passengers who like their inflight entertainment on the darker side will surely appreciate his efforts in the rest of this mostly-riveting tale of a picture perfect holiday romance gone horribly wrong.
Berlin Syndrome is now playing on select Emirates, Korean Air, American Airlines and Gulf Air flights worldwide and is also available via streaming at iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play.