A trip of self-discovery for Australian backpacker Clare (Teresa Palmer) ends with the sort of life experience she would only wish to hear about in the news. Travelling alone around Berlin, she literally bumps into schoolteacher Andi (Max Riemelt) at a street crossing. Their initial attraction grows throughout the remainder of day before they part ways at the end of the night, but Clare can’t shake Andi from her mind and seeks him out the next day. Before you can say freundschaftsbeziehung they are back at Andi’s place doing a lot more than bumping into each other.
Aside from our natural instincts warning Clare against heading back to this stranger’s apartment, there are no overt signs that something could be dangerously wrong. Teresa Palmer’s performance keeps us intrigued as to where the story plans to take her next and the following day quickly provides the answer. With Andi out teaching in school, Clare is left alone to gather her belongings and head off to continue her journey. Except she cannot leave the flat because she has been ‘accidentally’ locked in. Another day or two of excuses make it abundantly clear that Andi has every intention of keeping her imprisoned in his home.
There is a high level of intensity and intrigue during this first act, attempting to figure out what exactly is motivating Andi, while Clare’s growing sense of fear is well judged by Palmer who doesn’t overcook her reactions. The stage is very much set at this point for a claustrophobic psychological thriller to be played out in the confines of Andi’s small flat, hidden in the back streets of a gloomy Berlin. Instead, director Cate Shortland slowly begins to dilute this premise by venturing outside of the flat once too often, following Andi during his working day and delving into the relationship with his elderly father and the unspoken issues with his deceased mother.
The film’s title is of course a play on the Stockholm Syndrome condition, whereby a hostage or kidnap victim can experience conflicting feelings of trust towards their captors. Perhaps Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel explores this in more detail, because Shortland barely seems concerned with examining how the symptoms of this strange phenomenon could evolve between Clare and Andi. Maybe that omission wouldn’t feel so damaging to the flow of the story if the formation of either character was more rounded, or if the family history lingering behind Andi actually helped to provide some clarity about his personality.
And yet, it does not feel fair to call Berlin Syndrome a badly made film. What it lacks is sustained momentum to make the most of a well-established opening and the good faith of two actors who stretch the material as far as it can go. A runtime of two hours only serves to extend the tedium before any tension that did exist eventually bleeds out completely. The seemingly rich psychological subtext is mostly ignored until the film finally limps to its conclusion, joining the ever-growing list of genre films that eventually merge into one largely forgettable mess.