Berlin Syndrome

Column: The Word on Films   |   Date Published: Saturday, 20 May 17   |   Author: Majella Carmody   |   1 month, 1 week ago

It’s pretty much every girl’s nightmare:

Embracing your youthful freedom and the endless potentialities of ‘finding yourself’ by travelling alone across Europe, you meet a tall, dark and handsome stranger. You hook up with him in a rush of sexual spiritedness, only to discover in the exhilarating blur of the morning after that you’ve somehow become locked, trapped, imprisoned in his derelict, secluded apartment.

Australian director Cate Shortland has constructed a chilling new captivity thriller in Berlin Syndrome, by firstly drawing in the audience with elements of familiarity or ordinariness: the initial ‘boy-meets-girl’ interactions between Clare (Teresa Palmer), a photojournalist from Brisbane with a fascination for GDR architecture, and Andi (Max Riemelt), a Berliner school-teacher. It all starts off innocently enough, but the sterility and muted tones of the film’s setting in former East Berlin begin to contribute to a palpable sense of isolation and foreboding.

Palmer gives a controlled and nuanced performance, carefully and convincingly switching between passion, confidence, vulnerability and terror, sometimes with little more than a glance. Riemelt is equally terrific: Andi’s obsession is grounded in his own sense of normality and routine (all the while creating a living hell for Clare), and his actions are driven by the unsettling conviction that is the lovers’ destiny.

Berlin Syndrome explores the fear associated with abused trust and physical and psychological entrapment. Despite being a tad overlong, the tension in this film is unwavering.


Get Out:

In times of social, political, and economic crisis, the little resources and power that are left are squandered among the most privileged. But, a pretty neat thing happens also – amazing works of art are created. Yep, the leader of the free world is Donald Trump and that is appalling. However, resistance is taking varied and creative forms, such as Jordan Peele’s directorial debut: Get Out. As with the geriatric women at reproductive rights marches displaying signs saying, ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this sh*t’ it is exasperating but imperative that our films, books, and other cultural touch-points still illustrate how insidious and dangerous prejudice is.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) have been dating for months and have reached the ‘meet the parents’ stage. Chris is understandably a little apprehensive for several reasons. His trepidation gives way to resignation when Rose’s parents behave predictably – eager to demonstrate at every opportunity how they are definitely not racist (Rose’s father remarks no less than three times he would’ve voted a third time for Obama).

The film crescendos from eye-rollingly uncomfortable to sinister at a steady pace. One of the most common retorts African American people hear when they are complaining about the prejudice they experience is ‘you’re just being paranoid’. Get Out paints a discomforting picture of American culture – the dominant culture dismisses what it doesn’t want to know about.


Free Fire:

Typically, gun fights in action films last less than five minutes at a time, especially for franchises like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon or Mission: Impossible. Producers are anxious to hurry the plot along to the next expensive set piece where explosions happen, and stilted dialogue provides a stiff exposition for the audience. The protagonist occasionally ducks behind cover to say a few meaningful words to a friend, only to then dive out into the line of fire, guns blazing, emerging victorious and unscathed.

Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s Free Fire is an hour-and-a-half-long gun-fight, the antithesis to this sort of action film fascination with elaborate set pieces. There is no clear protagonist, and no significant plot to unravel. Wheatley places a set of colourful characters (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley and Noah Taylor) into an arms deal in a warehouse in the 1970s, and allows the action to unfold and degenerate. There’s no inspiring act of heroic violence, and long stretches of the film are silent, punctuated by gunfire and quips from characters, insulting and taunting each other.

Despite the clear genre-service Wheatley intends to pay, he leaves his own trademark acidity on screen, with characters writhing in filth and engaging in short bursts of intense violence, intercut with moments of a kind of mean, derisive humour. Think The Avengers for cynical misanthropes, and you’re starting to get on my wavelength. See this film.


Their Finest:

Based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, and directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), Their Finest follows the story of a crack creative team as they endeavour to hit the key emotional and nationalistic marks in the development of a British propaganda film during World War II.

Against the backdrop of the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, Welsh girl Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) applies for a secretarial position, but is instead hired by the British Ministry of Information to write ‘slop’ (a.k.a. ‘women’s dialogue’) for a series of short information films (much to the disappointment of her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston)). Catrin’s talents are quickly recognised, and she soon finds herself on the writing team for a feature film about the evacuation of Dunkirk, where she befriends the film’s chief screenplay writer, Tom Buckley (the ever-appealing Sam Claflin). Amidst the chaos and destruction caused by air raids, Catrin must also navigate the trivialities of reining in the inflated ego of ageing star, but key player, Ambrose Hilliard (a scene-stealing Bill Nighy).

This lovingly realised period dramedy and ‘film-within-a-film’ is chock-full of exceptional British talent (including Jeremy Irons, Richard E. Grant, Helen McCrory and Eddie Marsan).  Despite occasionally succumbing to cliché, the film adeptly captures cinema’s ability to entertain, move and involve an audience though compassionate, relevant storytelling.

Their Finest is a charming, funny, heart-warming, hot-chocolate Sunday afternoon gem of a film. Take your mum.



Cannibalism. It’s one of the last societal taboos, something that seems to generate extreme reactions regardless of whether you are a sensitive soul (i.e. wimp) or a horror fan who can stomach almost any other gratuitous violent act in a movie.

It’s also had an interesting history cinematically. Going as far back as (at least) 1963’s Blood Feast, it has involved controversy and bans (Cannibal Holocaust), been depicted in musicals (Sweeney Todd and Cannibal: The Musical) and even won a Best Picture Oscar (The Silence of The Lambs).

This is the latest entry into the sub-genre, and is a French/Belgium/Italian co-production. The central protagonist is Justine (Garance Marillier) and the film is set in a veterinary university during her first term. Brought up vegetarian, she is subjected to a cruel hazing ritual where she is bullied into eating a rabbit’s liver. This leads to physical reactions and an animalistic desire for meat.

The film fits perfectly into the body-horror genre, but is clearly eligible to be part of the current alt-horror movement (where films like It Follows and The Witch nod their heads to the masters of the genre, like George A. Romero and John Carpenter, while simultaneously subverting the traditions they have established). Debutant feature filmmaker Julia Ducournau has merged two conventional genres (female coming-of-age and horror) and structured them into a graphic and absorbing movie that believes in the intensity of its atmosphere and characters.



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