Australian director Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome, adapted from the book of the same name by Melanie Joosten is a straightforward and stylish take on the first-date-gone wrong genre of horror films.
Attracted by the architecture of pre-unification Berlin, Australian photographer Clare spends time in the Germany capital. She runs into Andi (Max Riemelt), a handsome and charismatic local, and the two end up spending the night together. Everything seems calm and normal and Clare wants to continue on her solo trip through Europe, only to slowly realise that Andi, who lives in an abandoned part of the city in a house fortified with multiple locks, has no intention of letting her go.
The film is a two-hander for most of its 116-minute running time, and takes place almost entirely inside the four walls of Andi’s sparsely decorated apartment. Shortland uses the sequences outside, during which Andi meets his father, or goes to work, to highlight Clare’s isolation. She pays more attention to the situation these characters find themselves in, rather than their psychological state.
What really works for Berlin Syndrome is Shortland’s ability to create atmosphere and her untypical handling of a familiar situation. The creepy tone is immersive and doesn’t allow audiences to ever feel truly comfortable, like a good horror story should. There is also sudden, occasional burst of violences that are bloody and tense.
In the hands of a less capable director, the movie could have easily devolved into a cliched take on well-worn material. Instead, Shortland’s direction ensures an effective genre film.