RN’s Jason Di Rosso on Cate Shortland’s “dark fairy-tale” ‘Berlin Syndrome’

Cate Shortland (l) on set.

Imagine you’re a young woman from Brisbane, and you decide to quit your job taking photos for a real estate website, and head overseas for the first time, to the cool city where all the other cool young people seem to be heading – Berlin. There you meet a really nice guy, you go back to his, you have amazing sex. But fast forward to the morning after and you discover he’s locked you in his creepy apartment, and so begins Berlin Syndrome, a dark fairy-tale of a thriller from Australian director Cate Shortland.

You might remember Cate’s first film, Somersault, which came out in 2004. That film probably rings a bell because you either loved it or hated it – it was dragged into a debate that raged at the time about how Australian cinema was in crisis. It was a particularly ill-informed, mostly useless exercise dominated by claims from the affirmative team that the films we were making in this country were depressing, niche, and didn’t attract an audience. Somersault was the film of the moment that copped a lot of the flak. The solution, apparently, was that we needed to make more populist genre films in this country, and, anachronistically, some pointed back to a so-called golden age of Australian genre filmmaking in the 1970s as an example we should emulate. You might remember a snappy documentary that helped the case – Not Quite Hollywood – with Quentin Tarantino gushing over how much he loved us. Ignore Tarantino, there’s actually scant evidence for this claim of a golden age – certainly Australia never made anywhere near the quality or quantity of hardboiled action movies and comedies churned out in places like Hong Kong or Italy in the 1970s, but that's by the by, mud was hurled, and Somersault, an accomplished, tender debut feature about a girl’s coming of age starring Abbie Cornish – got caught in the cross fire.

So how is Cate Shortland travelling now, 13 years later, on just her third feature after her well received World War II drama Lore in 2012, about a German girl who takes her siblings on a cross country trek after the collapse of the Nazi regime.

The answer is that she’s still following a line that began with her early shorts at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Shortland is an auteur and the imprint of her style is unmistakable. It’s a cinema that evokes the sensation of strong feeling. The camera seems to quiver, often hand held and coming in and out of focus. The lighting is wildly expressive and her actors – their faces streaked with tears and their clothes torn – deliver performances of intensity, pain, and strength. The difference with Berlin Syndrome – based on the novel by Melanie Joosten and adapted for the screen by Jasper Jones and Snowtown screenwriter Shaun Grant – is that it’s the first time Shortland has dealt with source material that has a clear commercial appeal.

The matchup between her ethereal style and the brutality of a kidnapping thriller isn’t always a happy one. The film can’t quite sustain the tension, nor can it follow through on some of the ideas it stops to signpost.

Just what is it about? Like the central character Clare – a young woman who takes loving photos of crumbling East German architecture but almost visibly squirms with embarrassment at the mention of her home town of Brisbane – it suffers from something of an identity crisis. Is this a moral tale, then, about tourists who indulge in superficial fantasies about societies they don’t understand? Or is it a film about Max Reimelt’s angel faced psycho Andi – the son of a communist father and a mother who defected to the West – whose inability to reconcile with a fragmented past is a symbol for Germany itself?

Shortland tries to make it about both, but ultimately settles for something simpler, a coming of age story told through a prism of escalating violence and manipulation, that lacks, however, the exterior journey through expansive landscapes featured in her previous films. Andi’s grey apartment – beautifully recreated on a Melbourne sound stage with shadowy nooks, crannies, and a secret room – is the main backdrop, and Shortland doesn’t quite transcend the location.

The film’s mix of tragedy and farce – sometimes reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s Misery for the way both captor and captive invest in a make-believe version of their relationship – lacks nuance.

Palmer, whose piercing blue eyes become ever more determined, does convince as a victim who turns the tables on her abuser. But the overriding impression of the film is of a gifted auteur who hasn’t quite managed to bend the material to her will.

Listen to Jason Di Rosso's interview with Cate Shortland here.