Solid rule of thumb: Never accept strawberries from strangers on the street, no matter how good-looking the fruit or well-spoken the unknown person. But maybe that’s just me. For Clare (Teresa Palmer), the intrepid Australian backpacker who in Berlin Syndrome finds herself imprisoned in a Berlin apartment by a romantic psycho (Max Riemelt), every new experience has always been an opportunity to broaden horizons and to indulge the unknown. And while the early scenes of Cate Shortland’s moody thriller are filled with their share of “Oh, no, why would you do this?” and “Oh, god, why would you say yes to that?” moments, Palmer’s performance carries us along. We sense that this young woman isn’t entirely unaware of the danger of what she’s doing when she goes off with Riemelt’s shy, mysterious Andi. She maybe even kind of, sort of gets off on the thrill, the slight hint of uncertainty and menace in hooking up with this handsome, smart but not entirely unthreatening young man.
Soon enough, however, Andi is bolting the doors and hiding the keys and refusing to let Clare go. What started as a weird little touristy fling becomes a full-on nightmare. Ironically, it’s at this point that Berlin Syndrome starts to lose steam — it’s as if the film doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. Palmer’s performance remains strong, and scenes of her trying to figure her way out of her predicament are rendered with effective visual storytelling. But after a while, Shortland seems more interested in exploring the inner life of Andi, an introverted literature teacher and high school basketball coach with some vague hangups about his big-time academic father and odd ideas (to say the least) about women. It’s all strictly dime-store psychology, but that doesn’t stop the film from spending an unusual amount of time mining Andi’s mind for insights, as if it might reveal anything beyond the obvious.
There’s nothing wrong with a simplistic thriller, but Berlin Syndrome has the trappings of a movie that aspires to something more. The drifty camera and the droning music create a curiously ethereal mood that undercuts the tension. Shortland has used similar devices in her earlier works, the coming-of-age film Somersault (2004) and the wartime drama Lore (2012). In both those movies, such stylization held us suspended between subjectivity and detachment, and the gambit worked. As Berlin Syndrome proceeds, however, we start to feel like we’re drowning in atmosphere, and it gets harder and harder to stay interested in what happens next.