An erotic re­la­tion­ship re­veals a darker, more ter­ri­fy­ing side in Cate Short­land’s new film, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Ber­lin Syn­drome

Cate Short­land’s Ber­lin Syn­drome is a story of cap­tiv­ity and re­sis­tance, a movie that ex­plores some­thing she sees at the heart of many tra­di­tional fairy­tales with cen­tral fe­male char­ac­ters. “They’re of­ten re­ally erotic, but their erotic na­ture ren­ders the woman quite pow­er­less or she be­comes a pas­sive re­cip­i­ent of it.”

Ber­lin Syn­drome, adapted by Shaun Grant and based on the novel of the same name by Mel­bourne au­thor Me­lanie Joosten, fo­cuses on Clare (Teresa Palmer), a young Aus­tralian trav­el­ling over­seas. Soon af­ter she ar­rives in Ber­lin, she meets Andi ( Max Riemelt), a per­son­able young man who strikes up a con­ver­sa­tion with her on the street. She’s drawn to him, and changes her plans to be with him for a lit­tle longer. Af­ter they spend a night to­gether, Clare discovers Andi has locked her in when he left for work. She as­sumes this is a mis­take, and on his re­turn he be­haves as if this were the case. It takes her a while to re­alise that it’s not — that he does not in­tend to let her leave.

Clare is his pris­oner, alone in his apart­ment, un­able to leave or con­tact any­one. Mean­while, Andi main­tains some kind of reg­u­lar life. He teaches high-school English and oc­ca­sion­ally vis­its his fa­ther, an aca­demic. He be­haves at first as if his re­la­tion­ship with Clare is sin­gu­lar yet log­i­cal and de­fined, al­most rea­son­able. In this sit­u­a­tion, it might seem Andi has all the power; Clare must try to dis­cover if she has any at all, and how she might be able to use it.

There is a sense of threat or dan­ger early in the film, cre­ated partly by sound and mu­sic.

“I wanted there to be a re­ally erotic, pow­er­ful un­der­tow.” Short­land says. “Clare is re­ally phys­i­cally drawn to him, and he is to her, so there’s this strong sex­ual con­nec­tion at the be­gin­ning. And we used breath as a kind of rhythm, and as the film pro­gresses, that be­came darker and darker.”

To Andi, Short­land says, Clare is “a doll. He doesn’t want a real hu­man, he wants a hu­man who will act out his fan­tasy of what a woman is.” Clare re­alises this need might be a source of weak­ness, that find­ing an “in­ter­nal space” can be a source of strength for her. “That’s where she goes as a char­ac­ter, be­cause she doesn’t care any more if he likes her or if he doesn’t. She al­most doesn’t care if she lives or dies, and in a way that’s her free­dom.”

There are all kinds of ways in which the shifts in their re­la­tion­ship can be re­in­forced vis­ually. Cos­tume de­signer Maria Pat­ti­son, for ex­am­ple, re­flected the changes in Andi’s wardrobe, Short­land says. “He puts on this hip­ster cos­tume at the be­gin­ning, to walk around and pick up tourists. But as the film pro­gresses his char­ac­ter starts to wear shirts and pants ex­actly the same colour as the walls. He starts to re­cede, and she starts to pop.”

Ber­lin Syn­drome was filmed partly in Mel­bourne, where the scenes in the apart­ment were shot, and partly in Ber­lin. They had two weeks’ re­hearsal in Ber­lin, “in an Airbnb apart- ment right on the Ber­lin Wall”, that helped the ac­tors cre­ate a sense of the space they were shar­ing for much of the film. “When we went back to Mel­bourne we re­hearsed on set for five days,” Short­land says. “And then we shot all the stuff in the apart­ment al­most in se­quence. That was ac­tu­ally so great be­cause you could just build and build and build on the re­la­tion­ship.”

Short­land brought in a chore­og­ra­pher on her first fea­ture, Som­er­sault, and drew on the skills of “a re­ally phys­i­cal dra­maturge” for her sec­ond film, Lore. This helped the child ac­tors find ways to move as if they were ex­hausted and un­com­fort­able, as the nar­ra­tive re­quired.

For Ber­lin Syn­drome, chore­og­ra­pher Daniel Mi­cich did a work­shop with the ac­tors, as well as Short­land and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ger­main McMick­ing, that helped them work out phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ships and de­velop a sense of trust, some­thing that made film­ing the sex scene much more straight­for­ward. “For me it was re­ally good as a di­rec­tor be­cause I can get re­ally cere­bral and she takes it straight back to the ques­tion, ‘so what would your im­pulse be?’ ”

The book and film of Ber­lin Syn­drome have much in com­mon, but there are in­trigu­ing dif­fer­ences re­lated to chronol­ogy, tone and plot. In the film, Andi is a more cal­cu­lat­ing fig­ure: in the book he is an op­por­tunis­tic jailer who takes ad­van­tage of cir­cum­stances.

“He doesn’t set out to cap­ture her,” Joosten says of the char­ac­ter in the novel, “but he re­alises that by small ac­tions he can have more and more of what he wants, and he goes with that, with­out think­ing of the con­se­quences, of how that de­stroys the thing he’s try­ing to cap­ture.”

Cre­at­ing Andi and his in­ner life was chal­leng­ing, she says. “It was dif­fi­cult be­cause I didn’t want to con­done his be­hav­iour at all, I wanted to show why he makes the de­ci­sions he makes with­out sug­gest­ing they were at all ac­cept­able.” Joosten’s ini­tial in­ter­est, she says, was “to write a novel about power and con­trol in re­la­tion­ships, and about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence”.

“I also wanted to re­move that com­mon re­frain, ‘why didn’t she just leave?’ I made a sit­u­a­tion so ex­treme that ques­tion can’t be asked,” she says. “And then the fo­cus is on the re­la­tion­ship it­self and how it func­tions in this dy­namic, where Andi is in con­trol and Clare is not. She has to fig­ure out: how do I ex­ist within this?”

Short­land says she and Palmer talked about Clare as “an Aus­tralian sub­ur­ban girl, with an in­cred­i­bly open heart, but also real vul­ner- abil­ity and in­se­cu­rity”. “Teresa and I had both come from that life, and both re­ally re­lated to the idea that some­how be­ing a sub­ur­ban Aus­tralian woman or com­ing from that back­ground was shame­ful, and that you kind of wanted to get rid of it.

“A lot of the women work­ing on the project re­lated to that, to the idea that in your 20s, you’re so ex­cited to travel, to be some­body, be­cause it’s as if your life in the sub­urbs with your fam­ily is a dress re­hearsal. And then as you get older you re­alise that life is some­thing in­cred­i­bly pre­cious, and some­thing to be proud of and not ashamed of.”

Even­tu­ally, Clare finds a way to re­de­fine her­self, Short­land says. “She’s not play­ing at be­ing a good girl from sub­ur­ban Bris­bane any more, some­one who doesn’t speak out when she’s not spo­ken to. She be­comes more pri­mal, tougher, a bet­ter ver­sion of her­self, be­cause she doesn’t care any more what men think of her.”

Clare had brought her cam­era with her on her jour­ney; she wants to pho­to­graph build­ings from the Cold War era, with the aim of mak­ing a book. Her in­ter­est in pho­tog­ra­phy, Short­land says, is a means of “cap­tur­ing a life that she couldn’t en­gage in. She’d be the girl at the party watch­ing ev­ery­body dance. She’d be the girl at the party watch­ing other girls go home with young men. And never tak­ing what she wanted.

“Her pho­tos are some­how this way of cap­tur­ing life, ex­cite­ment and beauty she some­how felt ex­cluded from. And in a strange way when she meets Andi he of­fers her that.

“He of­fers her this in­cred­i­ble life and ex­cite­ment. But there’s a ter­ri­ble side to it, as there is in most fairy sto­ries.” opens on April 20.


Teresa Palmer in a scene from Ber­lin Syn­drome

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