DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Berlin Syndrome" by the Australian director Cate Shortland stars Teresa Palmer as an Australian woman traveling abroad who suddenly finds herself taken captive by a mysterious stranger. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG: The title "Berlin Syndrome" is a sly riff on Stockholm syndrome, that condition in which a hostage begins to feel sympathy for her captor. It's never clear what sets the Berlin version apart. And in some ways, the director, Cate Shortland, and the screenwriter, Shaun Grant, seem to be figuring it out as they go along. That's not a knock. "Berlin Syndrome" might look on the surface like a polished B-movie, a crafty and violent tale of a woman in captivity. But it's also the rare psychological thriller that feels not just taut and gripping but genuinely exploratory. It nudges an overworked subgenre into fascinatingly unresolved territory.
Teresa Palmer plays Clare, a young Australian photographer who has just arrived in Berlin as the movie opens. She spends her nights in a hostel and her days wandering around the city, snapping pictures of buildings with a particularly fond eye for Cold War-era architecture. She looks lonely and somewhat forlorn but also open to the thrill of a new experience. And she gets one when she meets Andi, played by Max Riemelt, a friendly schoolteacher with Ryan Gosling good looks and a talent for mangling the English language in the most charming way possible.
Clare, who has just been thinking about moving on to Dresden, puts her plans on hold and spends a night at Andi's place. The love scene that ensues is passionate and raw but also faintly ominous. Clare is too lost in her pleasure to notice that none of the windows in Andi's apartment open or that the whole building seems suspiciously vacant. The next morning, Andi goes off to work, and Clare finds herself locked in. She chalks it up to a silly misunderstanding.
One of the most unnerving things about "Berlin Syndrome" is its eerie sense of modulation, the way it takes its time confirming Clare's worst fears. Even after Andi returns home later that evening, she doesn't realize that her hot one-night stand is a serial creep who has no intention of letting her leave.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BERLIN SYNDROME")
TERESA PALMER: (As Clare) I couldn't find a key. Did you leave me a key?
MAX RIEMELT: (As Andi) Yeah, sure. I thought I left it on the table.
PALMER: (As Clare) Nope. I didn't think I'd be able to back in, and then I realized that I couldn't even leave.
RIEMELT: (As Andi) Hey, you can leave now. I'll take a shower.
PALMER: (As Clare) Did you lock me in?
RIEMELT: (As Andi) Yeah, sure. But next time, I'll tie you to the bed.
CHANG: She thinks he's kidding, but he isn't.
Shortland is a masterful director of action, and her set pieces leave you duly gasping for air. Clare's first escape attempt, involving a jigsaw puzzle and a well-placed screwdriver, is a perfect balance of squirmy build-up and gory release. But the mechanics of suspense interest Shortland only so much. What she has fashioned here is a dual character study in which her attention, if not her sympathy, is distributed evenly between predator and prey.
Riemelt scrupulously avoids even a hint of over-the-top villainy. And he's in no hurry to give up his character's secrets. But there are telling clues nonetheless. The movie follows Andi as he visits his father, teaches his classes and awkwardly tries to engage with his co-workers. Andi's hang-ups have a way of emerging in random conversation. At one point, he chats up another woman on the street, eyeing her as a possible replacement for Clare. He's clearly done this all before.
What makes "Berlin Syndrome" so compelling - and keeps it from devolving into a leering exploitation movie - is that Clare is even more fascinating than her captor. Palmer plays her character as not just a heroine but an enigma. While we learn an awful lot about what makes Andi tick, Clare's own back story remains something of a blank. There are no flashbacks, no insights into what might have motivated her to move around the world or what she might even be fleeing.
As days become weeks and weeks become months, Clare retreats into her own private madness. We're never entirely sure what to make of her relationship with Andi or the fragile layers of trust and affection that seem to develop between them. Has Clare resigned herself to her fate? Or is she just playing one very long mind game? As it patiently untangles that mystery, "Berlin Syndrome" occasionally loses its narrative momentum, particularly toward the end, as one brutal climax follows another. But the underlying tension never goes slack. We remain a captive audience to the end.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times.
On Monday's show, we'll listen back to one of our favorite programs from our archives, a studio performance by and interview with Dion, one of the great singers who started in the doowop era. His hits included "Runaround Sue," "I Wonder Why" and "The Wanderer." A new collection of folk rock songs he recorded in 1965 has just come out. Many of those songs were unreleased until now. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "MY BUDDY")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "MY BUDDY")
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