horror movies

How Scary Is Berlin Syndrome?

Teresa Palmer in Berlin Syndrome. Photo: Sarah Enticknap

Memorial Day weekend at the movies provided plenty of standard blockbuster fodder, with both Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Baywatch giving audiences fresh new installments of intellectual property they’d previously loved, or at least heard of. But as astute theater patrons know, summertime has also become a great time for finding horror treasures amidst the massive muscles and massive budgets typically on offer. This year’s first sneaky summer entry is Berlin Syndrome, which stars Teresa Palmer as a young woman on holiday in Germany who is taken prisoner by a handsome local after they share a passionate tryst. Still, since horror tends to lather-rinse-repeat when it comes to thrills, there’s a lot of chaff to sort through to find the wheat. So Vulture is here to be your guide, letting you know how scary Berlin Syndrome is, and assessing whether or not that brand of scary is something you want to take a chance on.

First of all, what kind of scary is this movie? I can’t do that torture stuff.
That’s an interesting question! Berlin Syndrome isn’t torture porn in the Saw and Hostel sense, but it is most certainly a feature-length exercise in psychological torture. Palmer’s character, Clare, is taken captive early on and kept in almost complete isolation in a derelict apartment building. (Before things turn sinister, Andi assures Clare no one can hear her when they’re having sex; we can assume that she’s not the first woman he’s kept under lock and key.) The apartment becomes a prison in which Clare is made to play house with a man who sees her as a possession. There’s not a lot of brutal violence in Berlin Syndrome, but the emotional wear and tear is heavy.

Should I recognize anyone in this?
Yes! Teresa Palmer is coming off a small turn in the Oscar contender Hacksaw Ridge, but she made her biggest impression in last summer’s horror surprise, Lights Out. Fortunately for horror fans, Palmer seems to deliver her best work under extreme duress. Her character here lets her burrow into the psychology of the victim-hero in a way Lights didn’t, and Palmer works the gray areas of the Stockholm syndrome narrative. And you might not have heard of director Cate Shortland yet, but the Australian is definitely one to watch, having made Syndrome with a pair of critically acclaimed dramas, Lore and Somersault, already under her belt.

It sounds like this movie will make me really uncomfortable, but is it scary?
Yes, this movie will probably make you dreadfully uncomfortable down to your core. Berlin delivers the terror of watching a women being physically dominated by a man, before we watch her sense of self disappear — a different, slower form of horror. Locked in captivity, Clare must act out to assert any semblance of autonomy, and balance self-defense with submission to stay alive. Shortland moves the story gradually; instead of going from one trauma to the next, we’re instead forced to see her live with and grow attached to her warden. The toxic blend of fear and dependency between Clare and Andi makes for perverse moments of comfort, and even inexplicable jealousy. There’s near-constant anxiety in wondering what he might possibly do to her next.

All right I’m into it. Is there anything else you’d recommend based on the movie?
If you want a straight-up thriller about a woman being trapped in a house, last year’s Hush is an excellent cat-and-mouse entrapment movie that ups the tension by featuring a deaf protagonist. If you want another movie that gets into the mind-warp of being the prisoner of a hypercontrolling male captor, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In from 2011 is worth checking out. It stars Antonio Banderas as a lonely plastic surgeon keeping a beautiful young woman captive in his home, providing her with every creature comfort, but also turning her into a living doll that he performs constant procedures on.

How Scary Is Berlin Syndrome?