'Berlin Syndrome': Cate Shortland Explores Sexual Captivity in Sundance's Most Horrifying Thriller
Cate Shortland, Teresa Palmer, and more share how they created Netflix's harrowing 'Berlin Syndrome,' which turns the female abduction thriller on its head.
It's a dilemma familiar to many women on a night out: you've just met a handsome, charismatic stranger. You have palpable chemistry. Reckless abandon beckons. But should you follow passion's lead? How do you know you can trust this person? What if he's a serial killer?
In the Sundance thriller Berlin Syndrome, he is. Director Cate Shortland brings these latent but ever-present fears to vivid life with the story of a sexy one-night-stand that is slowly revealed to be every woman's worst nightmare.
Australian tourist Clare (Teresa Palmer) arrives in Berlin wide-eyed and alone; perusing used bookshops, she bonds with a cute local schoolteacher, Andi (Max Riemelt), over a Gustav Klimt painting. (Its sinister undertones presage the depravity to come.) As they spend the day touring the city, their sexual tension escalates, but never comes to fruition—until Clare, on a whim, decides to forego her planned trip to Dresden the next morning in order to track down Andi. She follows him back to his digs in Kreuzberg, where he seems to be the only occupant of an abandoned pre-war apartment building on a sleepy street. They have the kind of intense, liberating sex known only to temporal encounters between strangers. But when Andi leaves for work the next day, Clare finds that she is locked in the apartment.
A sexy one-night-stand is slowly revealed to be every woman's worst nightmare.
At first, Clare believes Andi when he says he forgot to leave the keys. Then, the next morning, with cold, matter-of-fact precision, he locks her in again.
Thus begins the five stages of grief. First, in denial, Clare has sex with Andi once again, as if the very fact of her agency might will the situation to reverse itself. But over the next harrowing 24 hours, it slowly dawns on Clare that she is a hostage. She pleads and bargains with Andi to let her go. She grows violently angry, but an escape results in punishment and she is beaten and tied to the bed. Then, depression sets in as Clare realizes she is the pawn in a horrific psychodrama. Andi assumes the chilling guise of a hard-working man devoted to his housewife, and Clare, feigning the fifth and final stage—acceptance—becomes complicit in order to ensure her survival.
Though the gripping Berlin Syndrome might suggest otherwise, this is Shortland's first thriller. Her debut feature, the deeply moving and underrated Somersault, was a coming-of-age story; her sophomore feature, Lore, was a period drama. With all three films, Shortland has demonstrated that she is an immensely talented director whose craft and vision knows no boundaries of genre.
Following her film's premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Shortland told No Film School that the most satisfying part of making a thriller is in creating slow-burn anticipation. "The moments I was enjoying last night [at the premiere], because I haven't seen the film for a long time, were the moments when I knew something bad was going to happen," said Shortland. "I could see the audience waiting. The expectation—what the audience is waiting for—is as important as what they see."
It was also important to both Shortland and producer Polly Staniford that the film remained grounded in emotional truth. "People go into a thriller wanting to be scared, so we knew we needed to do that," Staniford said. "But we did talk a lot about not wanting to do traditional thriller tropes. Everything had to be there for the right reasons—we didn't want to just add a chase scene or a moment of violence for the sake of it. It had to come from a really truthful place. We always questioned everything we were putting in there, whilst also being very aware that we needed those moments to make the audience feel satisfied."
"We wanted to make a film where the sex and the violence was truthful."
This alchemy of truth and provocation proved rousing on a visceral level; the audience invests emotionally in Clare's plight, which, in turns, renders the grisly machinations of the plot more disturbing. "It's a really beautiful thing, as a filmmaker," said Shortland, "to see 400 people jump at the same time. I really enjoyed affecting people. It was fun to make a film where we were striving not just to have emotional truth, but also to make something that the audience would react to."
Of course, provocation doesn't always arise from sincerity. Various movies and television shows—most recently, Game of Thrones—have been publicly castigated for excessive depictions of rape and violence against women. Many horror and thriller screenwriters use violence against women as a plot device, and many women feel indignant about the fact that the writers are male. With Berlin Syndrome, Shortland has re-appropriated this typically male gaze to explore relational dynamics.
"We [wanted to] make a film where the sex and the violence was truthful," said Shortland. "We certainly didn't want to make something that was really grim and victimized women. We wanted to make a film that started a conversation, where people would leave the cinema and they'd want to talk about it. We wanted to let the audience almost, at times, enjoy the story, and then at the next moment go, 'Whoa, what the fuck? What's happening now?'"
To access the deeper core of the story's violence, Shortland had the actors, Teresa Palmer and Max Riemelt, go through an intense two-week rehearsal process during which she pushed them to break down the very foundations of their beliefs about gender and power.
"Cate made me think about how I treat women and how I see myself," said Riemelt. "The sexual stuff was really important to think about. I had to think about my own life and how I treat [women], what kind of respect I have, and how conscious I am of it or not. There were so many things that I didn't want to think about because I felt really uncomfortable."
"She asked questions that forced us to go deeper and deeper," added Palmer.
Working with a choreographer, Palmer and Riemelt learned to physicalize the film's subtleties by engaging in exercises, such as closing their eyes and attempting to and find each other in a room. "There was one exercise where [the choreographer] would put something that smelled a certain way, like spearmint or lavender, on a different part of our body, and we were blindfolded and had to try and find the smell on the other person's body," remembered Palmer. "That helped with the intimacy, too. Not being afraid to get into each others' physical space."
"There were so many things that I didn't want to think about because I felt really uncomfortable."
In person, Palmer is a self-described "ENFJ—a big personality, very outward and open." Riemelt is gentle and unassuming. Shortland intentionally pursued this dichotomy when casting the actors. "They weren't the types that the audience is going to expect," she said. "Teresa is usually very outgoing. She had to shrink that personality right down and strip herself right back to very primal, minimal movement. Max, too, is a very innocent kind of person, and he had to let ugly things rule him—he has to play this extremely violent, angry, frustrated character. There's a great friction in that."
Throughout production, Shortland maintained an atmosphere of openness, both emotionally and creatively. Palmer said this enabled her to give herself over to the film's sensitive material. "It didn't feel like a hierarchy, like we were working for her," she said.
"The first question [Shortland] asked me was, 'What do you think about the script? Do you have anything you would want to change?'" Riemelt said.
The actors' performances are largely nonverbal; body language reveals the distorted power dynamics between Clare and Andi, who treats his hostage like property. Clare, naturally reticent, begins to collapse from the inside; confinement erodes her personal strength and she slowly concedes to her dependency. But underlying it all, there's a sincere and intimate connection between the two characters—a vestige of their strong initial attraction—and they become entangled in ways eerily reminiscent of voluntary relationships that have soured.
"I think that attraction is always there," said Shortland. "What I was interested in, in terms of the material of the original book by Melanie Joosten, is that she doesn't judge that attraction. So there's always this chemistry between the two characters. And that's what I really love: it's not just a simple story about a woman being victimized. It's actually a story about a relationship. A lot of women are in tricky relationships where they feel somehow trapped."
"This film is almost like a metaphor relationships that people can't get out of," said Staniford. "Behind closed doors, so many people are in weird, complex relationships that don't make sense. Whether it's emotional bullying or staying with someone because they need to financially but they don't love them anymore—this is the extreme version of that story."
"Behind closed doors, so many people are in weird, complex relationships that don't make sense."
Shortland and Staniford began by researching the psychological phenomenon Stockholm Syndrome, first observed in a woman who had been taken hostage during a bank robbery in Sweden. "We looked at a lot of books and read a lot of articles—not written by journalists, but written by the women who had been in these circumstances," said Shortland. "We [wanted to] get firsthand accounts that weren't sensationalist."
For Shortland, the most stunning realization throughout the research process was that, contrary to popular belief, women who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome don't generally fall in love with their captors. Instead, the victims conflate dependency with feelings of genuine admiration and attachment, which sometimes causes them to comply with their captors—even when opportunities to escape arise. (Famously, Elizabeth Smart visited restaurants and stores with her kidnappers without attempting to alert authorities.)
"What they actually are doing is surviving," she said. "And every human being needs emotion and warmth and sustenance, so sometimes the lines are very blurred in these relationships. One of the women who was trapped for 18 years [by a kidnapper] said, 'I just want to be clear: the sex was never rape.'"
"Some of the women that we looked at were repeatedly raped," Shortland added. "That's also important to state. But some of them weren't. And, you know, some of these women were going to parties with men who had trapped them."
In one scene, Andi leaves Clare in the apartment for nearly a week without explanation. When he returns, she experiences an almost ecstatic relief. "I thought you'd never come back!" she says. Buried in the joy of those words is a dismal truth: Andi represents Clare's only hope for life.
Berlin Syndrome is not merely a characterization of Stockholm Syndrome; the initial relationship was the result of Clare's own agency. In many ways, Berlin Syndrome implicates desire—that state in which the body feels "kidnapped," often acting out of accordance with normal behavior—as its own kind of prison.
"What's interesting about Clare is that she wasn't someone who was kidnapped off the street," said Staniford. "They had this beautiful, loving, highly charged connection at the start. And I think they're always, in a way, longing for that to come back. She really liked him! And trusted him."
And, according to Staniford, Berlin Syndrome—every woman's worst nightmare—has rung true in ways more than metaphorical.
"Last night," Staniford said, "a guy came up to me after the premiere film and said, 'I've got a personal story I'd like to share. A really good friend of mine from college literally had this exact thing happen to her in Hamburg. She sort of fell in love with her captor. They started having a relationship. And he locked her in the apartment. She was there for three days, and she finally got out. She was all over the news. So, this is happening. This is real.'"
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.