Two years ago at the Berlinale audiences were treated to Victoria; a captivating, single-take thriller taking place across the streets of Berlin, tapping in to the vulnerability of a woman travelling the world, adjusting to a whole new country and culture, and having to do so all on her own. This year Aussie filmmaker Cate Shortland presents Berlin Syndrome, exploring a similar notion and thriving in the same foreboding tendencies, and yet while this endeavour is not nearly as innovative as Sebastian Schipper’s offering, this unbearably intense piece is no less compelling.
Teresa Palmer plays Clare, acclimatising to life away from her homeland of Australia, backpack on and eyes full of wonderment, watching the world go by through the lens of her camera, as she documents her experiences. One afternoon she is approached by Andi (Max Riemelt) on the street, an English teacher trying his luck, and after evidently sharing much in common, she goes out of her way to track him down and propose the idea of a date. Their evening together soon turns into a night, and it’s a passionate, intense one at that. Back at his apartment she feels rejuvenated by life – except it’s that very same life she soon starts to fear for, as she awakes to discover things aren’t quite as they should be.
Shortland has presented a masterclass in suspense building, through the art of misdirection and suggestion, shooting Clare from afar, in a voyeuristic manner, which enforces her sense of isolation, and as though she’s being watched. It’s small moments, such as when Andi is driving Clare home, and when coming up towards a tunnel, there are two paths, one wide and brightly lit, compared to another far more narrow and unilluminated, and it’s the latter he turns down – an inconsequential moment, as he still takes her home safely, but it plays with our perceptions, and keeps us on edge. We know so little of our protagonist too, we don’t even know her name until she introduces herself to her new love interest, nor are we privy to her reasons for travelling, whether she was leaving anything behind, or searching for anything new.
There can be a slight distance created between the lead role and the audience, however, for many of her actions could have you wanting to scream ‘DON’T DO THAT’ at the screen, but then that in itself is part of the experience, as you could never tell how you would react if placed in the same situation she is, or what decisions you would make when in a state of sheer panic, and while some seem irrational, that’ll be because they absolutely are.