Horror films are often social commentary. They are a space in which primal fear and present-day neuroses alike are divulged – though it may be a concerning sign of the times that the medium for introspection is one that raises hairs and curdles blood. Berlin Syndrome, directed by Cate Shortland, is a domestic horror that satirises the trauma of boy-meets-girl.
The viewer follows Clare (Teresa Palmer), an Australian in Berlin with only her camera for company as she floats through the city marvelling at GDR architecture and nostalgic second-hand shops. She is beguiled by a handsome stranger, Andi (Max Riemelt), and abandons her travel plans in favour of staying with him. They retire to his apartment and during pillow talk, she wishes aloud that she could stay.
So far, so fairytale. Andi grants her wish, but does so by making her his captive. This punchline is central to the movie’s subversion of romantic tropes. The audience are lulled by early scenes of maudlin aesthetics, of cuteness and chivalry, all of which are subsequently lacerated by a sharp and savage wit.
Some moments are exquisitely subtle, others offer grotesque parody. A terrific Christmas sequence combines twee dialogue with a full embodiment of all things kitsch. In this fantastic pastiche, Andi inscribes his gift with the same message etched on a placard and offered to a woman by the man who stalks her through a camera in Love Actually: “To me you are perfect.”
Berlin Syndrome is astute in its treatment of the gendered gaze. As actions of romantic protagonists are reimagined as sadism, the camera is conspirator. Andi obsessively photographs Clare’s naked body. Clare realises her situation after recognising herself in a photograph and finding that Andi has signed “meine” on her flesh.
This film is too self-aware to escape scrutiny. In the opening montage, Clare stops to take a photograph of a woman in a headscarf. Berlin is not just a refuge for liberal values but for many people fleeing humanitarian crisis. Steeped in this context, a horror about a white and affluent woman being kept captive in a comfortable apartment full of books does not reach far enough. To its detriment, the movie doesn’t address the racial narrative.
Berlin Syndrome is far more cerebral than sensational. Cinephiles who love to feast on details and deconstruction will get far more from this feature than those looking for a thrill.
Berlin Syndrome is released nationwide on 9th June 2017.
Watch the trailer for Berlin Syndrome here: