You’d think shooting a movie in Germany, and at least partly in German, would count as a huge challenge for an n director. But not Cate Shortland. Having pulled off that substantial trick with Lore in 2012, she says, “I wasn’t as terrified the second time around”.
But making her tense psycho-sexual thriller Berlin Syndrome didn’t come without its challenges. Top of the list was the fact that while some of it was shot in the German capital, much of it was in fact filmed at Docklands Studios in Melbourne, in a set constructed to mirror exactly the Berlin apartment at the heart of its claustrophobic action.
Adapted by Shaun Grant and Shortland from Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel of the same name, Berlin Syndrome is about a young n traveller called Clare (Teresa Palmer) who stumbles into a fleet-footed romance with Andi (Max Riemelt), a Berliner and English teacher, only to find herself a prisoner in his apartment in an abandoned part of the former East Berlin.
Shortland, who grew up in Canberra and made her mark with her stunning debut feature Somersault in 2004, says she could identify wholeheartedly with Clare and the situation she finds herself in.
“Being from a really suburban n background and the whole idea of Europe being so exciting, so much better, that as ns we’re lesser – I related to that,” she says.
“Clare has been brought up well, she’s got manners, she’s kind – and in the end that’s what traps her. She’s a good girl and she knows instinctually that something is going wrong, but we teach young women not to speak out. I related completely to that, and so did Teresa [Palmer], because we’ve both had situations in our lives where we’ve known things weren’t right, but because you’ve been brought up to have manners, you don’t speak out.”
Clare is a lonely character, travelling by herself, lurking uncomfortably on the fringes of groups of fellow backpackers, wandering the streets with her camera as eye and shield. She’s an architectural photographer seeking escape from something unidentified back home, and slowly willing herself to open up to new possibilities.
“There was a lot of Teresa in Clare – the wanting to be liked, the being really unsure of herself, wanting to lead an exciting life,” says Shortland. “When you’re in your 20s and you’ve got such an open heart and you’re so excited about the world – how do you balance that beautiful excitement and naivety with the realities of what the world is? How do we teach young people to keep that openness, to keep that excitement and to also just be aware, you know?”
We first meet Clare on the street, but she’s soon confined to the apartment-prison, the trees shedding their leaves and the drifting of snowflakes the only indicators of how long she has been there (somewhere between nine months and a year, says Shortland). Andi, though, gets to have a life beyond those walls. We see him teaching English and sport at school, we see him at parties with his workmates, we see him with his much-loved father.
In short, we see Andi as a human being, albeit a deeply flawed and rather dangerous one.
“We didn’t want him to be a monster on the outside – we wanted him to be a monster on the inside,” says Shortland. “He wants to create this perfect world and this perfect relationship. What you’ve got is this angel face who can rationalise to himself what he’s doing.”
She’d never heard of Riemelt, an up-and-coming star in Germany, who has been acting since he was nine years old. But he instantly captured what she was looking for.
“Some of the other people we looked at just played it really aggressively, but Max always said the character hated what he had to do to her. He rationalised it, which a lot of people do, so that he could reach some sort of equilibrium and peace in the apartment, so he could put the relationship back on track.
“The character’s very Prussian – and he has that. He is that guy – not entirely, but there’s a lot of darkness in Max, but you don’t see it.”
That’s a slightly scary thought, isn’t it, that your handsome, charming leading man should have such a ready grasp of the monster within?
“Yeah, it is,” Shortland agrees. “But the thing is you have to take morality out of it – that’s what we do. It’s not about being good people or creating perfect worlds. It’s about all the dark, scary complicated messes, the universes inside us that we just don’t talk about. We don’t tell our partners all the shit in our heads – I bet you don’t.
“That’s what’s really exciting, when you’re in rehearsals and you can actually go to these really terrible places and talk about things you wouldn’t bring up over dinner with your friends. It’s really liberating. And then you can go and pick up your daughter from school and take her to the swimming pool and go and get an ice-cream. You’re back in the real world. It’s kind of a beautiful thing, really.”
Berlin Syndrome goes to some very dark places indeed. It never quite strays into torture porn, though it does hover on the fringes of serious creepiness. Mostly, though, it plays out as an extended metaphor for abusive relationships – the age-old scenario of a woman falling for a man who appears to be one thing but turns out to be something else, a man whose grip only tightens as her need and desire to escape increases.
“We all get trapped in relationships where we want to get out. It’s just that this one is a bit more extreme. Well, a lot more extreme.”
But for Shortland, the metaphor goes even further. “The power dynamic in the relationship, even the architecture of the relationship, the structure the couple were in, somehow mirrors the totalitarian state,” she says. “I think it’s impossible to make a film in Germany that doesn’t somehow speak to its history.”
Berlin is really the third main character in the movie, a city whose abandoned spaces present all sorts of opportunities, both positive and negative. It was always going to be necessary to film there but, because the $5.5 million budget was almost entirely n funded, it was also necessary to film here – hence the recreated apartment in Melbourne.
Of course, a studio set can be anywhere, but there were aspects of that split shoot that proved “really tricky”, says Shortland – for the cast as well as her.
“Every time you see a character near a window or engaging with the outside world, we shot that in Germany, and then they would walk backwards or we’d cut around them and we’d be in Melbourne,” she says. There’s one scene, she explains, where a visitor comes to the door of the apartment. The shot from the visitor’s point of view, looking in to the apartment, was shot in Berlin; the shot from Clare’s point of view, looking towards the visitor, was shot in Melbourne.
“I thought we couldn’t do it, I thought what a strange puzzle,” Shortland says. “But somehow we did.”
Karl Quinn is on facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin