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A One-Night Stand Takes A Disturbing Turn In 'Berlin Syndrome'

A tryst with Andi (Max Riemelt) makes a captive out of Clare (Teresa Palmer) in <em>Berlin Syndrome. </em>
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A tryst with Andi (Max Riemelt) makes a captive out of Clare (Teresa Palmer) in Berlin Syndrome.

The title of Cate Shortland's new film, Berlin Syndrome, is a sly riff on "Stockholm syndrome," that condition in which a hostage begins to feel sympathy for her captor. It's never clear what sets the Berlin version apart, and in some ways Shortland and the screenwriter, Shaun Grant, seem to be figuring it out as they go along.

That's not a knock. Berlin Syndrome might look on the surface like a polished B-movie, a crafty and violent tale of a woman in captivity; but it's also the rare psychological thriller that feels not just taut and gripping, but genuinely exploratory. It nudges an overworked sub-genre into fascinatingly unresolved territory.

Teresa Palmer plays Clare, a young Australian photographer who has just arrived in Berlin as the movie opens. She spends her nights in a hostel and her days wandering around the city, snapping pictures of buildings, with a particularly fond eye for Cold War-era architecture.

Clare looks lonely and somewhat forlorn, but also open to the thrill of a new experience. And she gets one when she meets Andi, played by Max Riemelt, a friendly schoolteacher with Ryan Gosling good looks and a talent for mangling the English language in the most charming way possible.

Clare, who has just been thinking about moving on to Dresden, puts her plans on hold and spends a night at Andi's place. The love scene that ensues is passionate and raw, but also faintly ominous. Clare is too lost in her pleasure to notice that none of the windows in Andi's apartment open, or that the whole building seems suspiciously vacant. The next morning, Andi goes off to work and Clare finds herself locked in. She chalks it up to a silly misunderstanding.

One of the most unnerving things about Berlin Syndrome is its eerie sense of modulation, the way it takes its time confirming Clare's worst fears. Even after Andi returns home later that evening, she doesn't realize that her hot one-night stand is a serial creep who has no intention of letting her leave.

Shortland is a masterful director of action, and her set-pieces leave you duly gasping for air: Clare's first escape attempt, involving a jigsaw puzzle and a well-placed screwdriver, is a perfect balance of squirmy buildup and gory release. But the mechanics of suspense interest Shortland only so much. What she has fashioned here is a dual character study in which her attention, if not her sympathy, is distributed evenly between predator and prey.

Riemelt scrupulously avoids even a hint of over-the-top villainy, and he's in no hurry to give up his character's secrets, but there are telling clues nonetheless. The movie follows Andi as he visits his father, teaches his classes and awkwardly tries to engage with his co-workers.

Andi's hang-ups have a way of emerging in random conversation. At one point he chats up another woman on the street, eyeing her as a possible replacement for Clare. He's clearly done this all before.

What makes Berlin Syndrome so compelling, and keeps it from devolving into a leering exploitation movie, is that Clare is even more fascinating than her captor. Palmer plays her character as not just a heroine but an enigma. While we learn an awful lot about what makes Andi tick, Clare's own backstory remains something of a blank. There are no flashbacks, no insights into what might have motivated her to move around the world, or what she might even be fleeing.

As days become weeks and weeks become months, Clare retreats into her own private madness. We're never entirely sure what to make of her relationship with Andi, or the fragile layers of trust and affection that seem to develop between them. Has Clare resigned herself to her fate, or is she just playing one very long mind game? As it patiently untangles that mystery, Berlin Syndrome occasionally loses its narrative momentum, particularly toward the end as one brutal climax follows another. But the underlying tension never goes slack. We remain a captive audience to the end.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.