No Leaving: Chilling "Berlin Syndrome" somehow avoids mere cheap thrills

Berlin Syndrome (2017)
116 min., rated R.

Having one foot in the anti-wanderlust thriller subgenre and the other in the "...from Hell" thriller subgenre, “Berlin Syndrome” cannot attest to being built on an original story. Its narrative trajectory, however, is perversely compelling in the ways it traverses “Stockholm syndrome” and narrowly avoids cheap thrills. With the title being a sly play on the aforementioned condition between captive and captor, the film only begins like another “Before Sunrise” before raising the tension beyond walking-and-talking scenes and delving a bit into the psychology of both parties. 

Having up and left Brisbane, Australia, backpacking photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer) arrives in Berlin, open to a new experience. While wandering around the city, snapping pictures and spending time in a bookstore, she runs into Andi (Max Riemelt), a handsome and charming English teacher from Germany. They meet cute when he drops a book on a street corner in front of Clare and offers her a strawberry; after they spend the rest of the day together, they go on their separate ways, thinking it will be the last time they see one another. By morning, Clare goes back to where they first met and, sure enough, finds Andi. They get to know each other some more and become more intimate when Clare goes with Andi back to his apartment. When she wakes up and Andi has already left for work, Clare realizes he took her post-coital words to heart about not wanting to leave. The windows are “reinforced” and there is a bar across the door that keeps it locked. Besides sinister, what are Andi’s intentions?

Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Melanie Joosten, “Berlin Syndrome” is watchably chilling, effectively unpleasant, and much less ludicrous than its obsession-thriller trappings might suggest. Subtle-enough clues foreshadow the potential peril that could (and does) stem from this situation, like Andi asking Clare if anyone knows that she’s in Berlin to Andi assuring Clare that no one can hear her when she covers her mouth as he pleasures her. While the film doesn’t break any new ground on the surface, director Cate Shortland (2012's "Lore") and screenwriter Shaun Grant (2011's "The Snowtown Murders") do explore a fascinating dynamic as Andi holds Clare against her own will and she goes between challenging him and succumbing to him as time goes on. Shortland alternately gets right the displacement and excitement of Clare being in a foreign place, and when the scenario does turn nightmarish, she knows how to keep things taut and ensure that there will be blood, like in a sequence involving a screwdriver and another with Clare's only hope coming to the rescue.

Before and after Clare becomes a prisoner, Teresa Palmer (2016’s “Lights Out”) is riveting. She makes her yearning to not be lonely so achingly palpable that the viewer doesn’t need to call out the film for failing a plausibility test. It is fairly easy to understand Clare’s first impression of, attraction for, and trust in Andi because their encounter is something new and exciting and sexy. In depicting a young woman who changes a great deal as the seasons change, Palmer throws blood, sweat and tears into Clare. As the controlling Andi, Max Riemelt (Netflix's "Sense8") has rugged Charlie Hunnam-like good looks but also gives his seductive yet deranged character more nuance than one would expect (and not only from a subplot involving the complicated relationship between Andi and his professor father Erich, played by Matthias Habich). Riemelt comes off as a gentleman and not as a psychopath right away; even when he sheds the nice-guy act, he is sometimes still calm, and that demeanor is even more unnerving. There is catharsis by the end of “Berlin Syndrome,” as well as the thought of the age-old advice both Mom and Rick Springfield gave us — don’t talk to strangers.