Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sundance ’17: Berlin Syndrome

If Australian Melanie Joosten’s debut novel had been originally published by a New York house instead, it would probably be titled The Girl in Berlin. The play on “Stockholm Syndrome” might be a bit too forced, but it is still more distinctive than yet another attempt to evoke Gillian Flynn and Paula Harkins. One thing is completely certain, an Australian tourist lands in deadly serious trouble in Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Clare has a thing for vintage GDR (DDR) architecture and the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Maybe that is why she feels such an instant attraction to Andi, a native East German school teacher. They have similar tastes in art and literature, but he seems rather bitter about both Re-Unification and the grim old days of Communism. Unfortunately, his attitudes towards women are also complicated, in the worst possible way.

After meeting in a promising Before Sunrise manner, Clare wakes to find her one-night stand just won’t end. She is locked into Andi’s refurbished and specially reinforced flat—the only still hospitable unit in an abandoned GDR-era housing complex. Initially, Clare rebels, but that just gets her trussed up. Quickly, she decides making nice is a shrewder course of action, but she remains watchful for any possible escape opportunity. Most ominously, she picks up clues suggesting she is not the first woman Andi has held captive.

Shaun Grant’s adaptation of Joosten’s novel makes the title sound misleading. While there are times Clare puts on a good show for Andi, viewers will never wonder if she is starting to feel a Stockholm Syndrome attachment for him. Still, the cat-and-mouse games are definitely tense stuff. However, Andi’s impossibly good luck is truly cosmically unjust. He just seems to get every break.

Regardless, the glammed down Teresa Palmer gives a harrowingly intense performance as Clare. She makes the audience feel every ounce of her characters suffering. Max Riemelt (who sort of looks like Jason Ritter, who looks a lot like Jason Giambi) is also appropriately clammy and tightly wound, which makes it even harder to believe she could fall for him.

Shortland (the Australian specialist in German language films, probably best known for Lore) shows sure-footed instincts, conveying a visceral sense of Clare’s claustrophobia, but periodically opening the film up to show more of Andi’s awkward interactions with the world. Yet, in all honesty, many of us regular genre [re]viewers are getting a little tired of creepy abduction thrillers. Shortland and cinematographer Germain McMicking give it plenty of style, but it is debatable whether it really fills a void in the world. Recommended for those not fatigued with kidnapping-confinement dramas, Berlin Syndrome screens again tonight (1/22) in Salt Lake and Thursday (1/26) and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.