If criminality has a zeitgeist, something which defines or typifies the age, then holding girls or young women captive, often for years, may well be ours. It retaliates against the progress made towards equal rights, which some men experience as emasculating, a woman’s place restored to the kidnapper’s definition of ‘home’. The unsettling question which haunts our understanding of these cases (one recently explored by the BBC series The Missing) is the possibility of a bond being forged between captor and captive. Known as the Stockholm Syndrome, after first being recognised during a Swedish bank siege in 1973, this is usually considered a survival strategy; but emotional complications arise, especially when children have been born, that shed light on our need for affection and on the unsettling dynamics which ripple like muscle beneath the surface of love.
Berlin Syndrome, the third feature-length film by Australian director Cate Shortland, takes this difficult issue as its subject, and produces a tense, involving drama that is often uncomfortable to watch. Clare, a photographer from Brisbane, arrives in Berlin with the aim of recording the architectural legacy of the GDR. She meets Andi, an English teacher in a physical education college and they spend the night together at his apartment, the start, it would seem, of a holiday romance. But Clare wakes to find herself imprisoned – an ordeal which she is not, it soon becomes clear, the first to have suffered at his hands.
For this to be convincing the set-up has to be right. The apartment is in an otherwise unoccupied block of flats, ironically the kind of relic she has come to photograph. The windows look out on an interior courtyard which no one else uses. In any case, Andi has double glazed them with reinforced glass. In making her premise watertight the director imitates the thought processes of the criminal, by no means the only role reversal in the film. For our part, enjoying the spectacle of another’s humiliation is pretty much the definition of sadism; and although we know that Andi will slip up eventually, the suspense is pleasurable and we want the moment postponed, making us accomplices in a way. As for Clare herself, this was no kidnapping by a stranger so it comes as less of a surprise that her feelings towards him are ambiguous. She submits to being tied up during the day like a participant in bondage; poses for the polaroids he takes of her in sexy underwear – another role reversal, the image-maker objectified; and virtually seduces him, the lovemaking too passionate to be wholly simulated. Of course, all of these actions can be seen as self-protection, and she attacks him when the opportunity arises. But the scenes with a sexual content, or at least implication, are shot in such a way as to blur the lines between compliance and desire. That is a difficult trick to pull off. A man could not do it these days, a sign of how far we have come – unless perhaps he was Lars von Trier.
That leaves us with Andi and his reasons for acting this way. A motive, or at least pathology, is suggested rather than explored, and I wonder if the original novel, by Shortland’s compatriot Melanie Joosten, has more to say about this. The decaying hulks of GDR buildings, along with the secrets they conceal, equate to memories repressed by the conscious mind of a unified Germany, whether these relate to crimes that were committed or to the hopes of a fairer society destroyed. Perhaps more could have been done to tease out this context or atmosphere. And, my only negative comment, Andi’s English class is hard to believe. Would PE students really be studying the work of James Baldwin? As a general point, teaching is badly served by cinema. Nonetheless, whether as psycho-sexual thriller or political allegory, Berlin Syndrome keeps us transfixed until the end. It is the work of a visual stylist and natural storyteller able to suggest layers of meaning beneath the conventions of a genre. Suspense plus thoughtfulness: what more can you ask?