In Berlin Syndrome, the young Australian photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer) travels alone to Berlin, fascinated by its Cold War architecture, before going out with the handsome Andi (Max Riemelt). After their second date, Clare finds herself locked up in his apartment, followed by a bizarre series of torment and mutual affection. The premise is simple, but at a closer look, Berlin Syndrome is an intriguing character study in a circumstance that falls under the umbrella term “Stockholm Syndrome”. But what exactly differs Clare and Andi’s perverse story to all perverse love stories between the kidnappers and the kidnapped we already knew?
There are too few kidnapping movies that touch upon the culprit’s side of the story, and when they do, narratives from the abducted (often main characters) still dwarf those of the abductors. That isn’t the case for Berlin Syndrome, in which Australian director Cate Shortland continued to explore dark corners in the complex human psyche, putting not only her usual emphasis on female sexuality and geographical dislocation but also the strange realization of subjectivity.
At first, we get to peek at Clare’s complexity through her opaque defense, almost to the point of being obscure and perplexing to viewers. However, this ambiguity is Shortland’s calculation because one of her greatest assets is visual storytelling. Most of the time, the director employed powerful delicacy in crafting gestures or silhouettes for attentive eyes to spot tiny details in Clare’s most subtle facial expressions and behaviors. A displaced young woman, Clare tries to break out of routines by experiencing life in a faraway land. She meets strangers, who are lovebirds, and instantly feels alienated. Clare’s loneliness worsens the hidden desire for intimacy as she becomes frustrated with her own sexuality. At the library, her favorite image of the art collection is “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”, which depicts vulnerability and preservation of the female body. As she mentions, the subject in the painting holds hands to hide her deformed fingers, analogous to Clare’s unjustified insecurity. Even when Andi looks to her back as a joke, she covers her backside like being violated. Later, her motivation would be clarified in a literary discussion about people in search of the unfamiliar as a cleansing, temporary way out of their draining lives. Shortland was confident about this idea even if viewers haven’t already figured from Palmer’s clever performance—her faint expressions of distress.
Clare’s disoriented bewilderment comes by a rescue, as it seems, in the form of Andi, an English teacher. Is he the man with the brown jacket in the library she visits a moment ago? After their chance encounter on the street, which involves erotic strawberry-eating, this attractive stranger invites her to the schrebergarten at which his mom used to let him play. While his silly English mistake and her awkward mannerism make for a typical meet-cute, this is not the predator-prey dynamic. During this scene, Shortland deliberately broke the 180-degree rule, jumping between the characters’ front and back to imply there’s so much more behind their veneers—with Clare donning a wolf mask. She plans to leave for Dresden, but Andi is a beguiling part of Berlin that Clare hasn’t explored yet. So she stays.
The next day, their official date continues with winks to carnal motives. Andi’s audacious flirtation literally grabs Clare at her throat, choking her in the sensual vibration of the word “erwugen” before Clare is lured into his trap, heedless of looming danger around his secluded apartment. “Berlin is full of these empty places,” Andi remarks on the location. What Palmer and Riemelt have is not overt chemistry—but an alluring, unabashed passion in their lust: Clare couldn’t face Andi when their hands touch as a gesture of acceptance. Modest touching culminates steamy sex, which descends into madness and tension. “What happens when you know someone?” to which he replies in German, “You see all their ugliness.”
In the first days of the lock-up, Andi displays traits of a sociopath – charming but also apathy and shameless as Clare’s suspicion grows. In his apartment, windows are heavily fortified (an improvement on the novel about Clare’s initial resistance), just as Andi’s impenetrable ego confounds his already confounded victim. Andi seems lukewarm to the broken windows and cares more about the chair Clare uses to smash them, then nonchalantly asks about Pesto. He thinks he’s doing what Clare unconsciously wants but can’t decide for herself, so he decides on her behalf anyway. To Andi, her reactions only rationalize his actions, which involves sexual and psychological manipulation.
A compelling character on his own, Andi is also defined by the conflicts within. Underneath his masculinity is a lonely, crude soul longing for love of any kind. Like dry, scabrous walls and a tiny hole on the thick door, he’s no less damaged and confined than Clare. His brief visits to his father uncover backstories about a boy growing up torn between love and hate for both of his parents. Through the words of his father, we learn of Andi’s nostalgia for German Democratic Republic—“a state devoid of any justice.” Here’s another analogy, revealing to us the influence of the Berlin Wall in the Cold War era to Andi’s upbringing. His mother left his father and him to enter West Germany—an action that scarred Andi for life. The loathing for his mother means everyone who wants to leave after stating they’d like to stay (even as a momentary thought) deserves being locked up. Andi lives not for himself, but for a former faux-expectation, which sentenced him to life because of a crime he didn’t commit.
Clare, not always submissive, is still dealing with the sudden captivity. Effort after effort, her defiance is overwhelmed with violence, so she eases Andi in for a golden opportunity, stabbing through his hand with a screwdriver and taking the keys. Andi soon catches her and, in a frightening gesture of “tough love”, breaks her fingers before fixing them at once. When asked about the wound, the aloof young man gives his dad the cold shoulder. He lies about it and compares himself to Jesus. The assault is inevitable as if he must suffer for Clare—without her being grateful—and get pierced through the palm of his hand. More than a possession, Clare is also his sheep, and he wants them to share pain: identical injuries on their hands.
Andi’s father worries that the tape wrapped on his wound will conceal and increase the infection. This aligns with his enduring trauma, which has been metastasizing into his adolescence. Almost a totalitarian, Andi rules by violence, breaking fingers but is tender enough to trim Clare’s fingernails and giving her a hot shower, which reminds us of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Howard by John Goodman—plus the sexual desire.
Clare’s mind is even more unstable than her abductor’s. After a while, there’s little resistance from her. She finds comfort in being constrained. She goes with the flow, so we can’t understand her motivation, which seems arbitrary with every new decision. Receiving the lingerie from Andi, Clare dances, and the improvised punches and kicks speak for the suppressed passion from her subconscious. Deep down, she still wants to break out and pretends to please Andi, to which the sociopath shows signs of disappointment.
Before all of this, Clare always keeps closely a ring from her mom. When Andi takes the ring, Clare loses the maternal attachment. Could it be from Clare’s mother after a divorce, or from her father, who might’ve not been there for her due to unknown reasons? It’s suggestive, apart from just being sexual imageries. Their individual life can compensate for each other’s needs correlating with their own parent issues.
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