Ich bin ein Brisbaner
‘Berlin Syndrome’ and the naivety of the tourist–artist
Berlin has served as the mythical nexus of artistic rejuvenation ever since, oh, at least David Bowie decamped to a modest flat above a Schöneberg auto shop, himself seeking some imagined version of Christopher Isherwood slumming that didn’t exist in the barren, demarcated shell of 1976. The city’s cheap rent and fashionable decay have long been elixirs to artists, vagabonds and dilettantes, but what happens when Berlin doesn’t reciprocate the affection?
There’s a moment in Cate Shortland’s new thriller Berlin Syndrome, opening in cinemas this week, in which her protaganist, a 20-something Australian backpacker named Clare (Teresa Palmer), is confronted by local schoolteacher Andi (Max Riemelt) for taking pictures of the city’s grim GDR architecture. “You photograph disappointment,” he gently admonishes her, aware that the accumulated debris of a politically ravaged century isn’t as appealing as it would appear to a naive tourist. To the Old World, the German capital represents a little more than an inexpensive hangout to make art.
Whether Shortland sets out to critique or identify with this tourist–artist mindset isn’t always clear. The spectre of Bowie and “cool” Berlin is invoked early, with Clare’s look – double blue denim, long hair dyed a shade of red – recalling the actress Natja Brunckhorst in Christiane F. (1981), a Bowie-themed, oft-cited document of Teutonic style; despite the film concerning the harrowing descent of a teenage heroin addict. The aesthetic nod is camouflage for a considerably less compelling scenario: an Aussie backpacker looking to explore her creative impulse abroad. In a premise that should feel like a ’90s period piece by now, Clare has ditched her tied-down Brisbane real estate gig to find her artistic spirit, which here involves patronising quaint old vendors in the Turkish district and snapping pictures of the depressed structures that earn her soon-to-be-captor’s disdain. Clare knows it’s a cliché; the film warms to her all the same.
It doesn’t take long for dark-hearted Germany to rear its ugly head. Under the pretext of romance, Andi lures Clare into his isolated apartment block – itself eerily reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), which came freighted with its own shady European baggage – and subjects her to gruelling sexual and domestic abuses that comprise an exhausting amount of the film’s run time. Andi, meanwhile, has issues with his father, a professor and former GDR man whose wife defected to the West. The father’s presence acts as a marker of the old state and potential anxiety about the influx of casual art tourism.
The screenplay, based on Melanie Joosten’s novel and credited to Shaun Grant, toys with these elements as a possible justification for Andi’s psychosis, but fails to interrogate them. Instead, Shortland seems jazzed in caricaturing the bogeyman of creepy Germany, in which our naive protaganist spends a seeming eternity in die folterkammer – Rammstein no doubt lurking just outside the reach of the music budget. In one effective, pointedly grotesque sequence, editor Jack Hutchings cuts sardonically between Andi precision-assembling a knock-off Eames chair and Clare being tied forcibly to the bed. German efficiency at work! Berlin Bowie reappears, too, albeit obliquely: having smashed Clare’s fingers, Andi forces her to pose for a portrait, one hand pressed to her chest and the other bandaged hand extended in a twisted version of the Erich Heckel paintings that inspired “Heroes”.
Shortland empathises with Clare, as will an audience by default: the film is at its most convincing when evoking the horrifying ordeal of domestic entrapment and it gives its protaganist at least some surface dues in developing what passes for agency here. In playing out its gruesome cat-and-mouse game of wits, Berlin Syndrome savours the triumph of naivety over the corrosion of antique systems; per the hammy wolf-and-cottage fairytale motif, Germany is sneaky and sinister and waits to gobble up our babes in the woods – but is Clare’s clueless sightseer perspective any less fraught?
In a key image, revealed in the contents of Clare’s digital camera, we see what appears to be an old Turkish lady in a headscarf, airing her laundry out of a tiny, dilapidated apartment window. Clare has snapped it amid her magical European reverie – as if to say, “look at this endearing old ethnic lady, how unlike Brisbane!” – but it remains uncertain whether Shortland is chiding this potentially Hanekeian image or offering it as an essential sign of Clare’s humanity. (The latter feels more plausible.) Grubbier, better genre movies have had few scruples in dispensing queasy comeuppance to unlikeable tourists and their cultural transgression – Hostel, Turistas; the films of Sebastián Silva in particular – and in less apologetic hands, Shortland’s movie might be appended with the tagline, “You fuck with Berlin, and Berlin fucks you right back.”
It’s not too wild a stretch to read Clare’s naivety as an analogy for Australian filmmakers on the international cinema stage. Shortland, at 48, is still best known for her 2004 breakout debut Somersault. Her self-conscious film-school style – as accomplished as it is for an Australian director – hasn’t evolved since, to a degree that it seems to actively defang her new movie’s premise. Shortland’s penchant for overly crafted tastefulness – scenes lit by Christmas bulbs, dust particles falling like fresh snow, traumatic sex scenes shot with perversely soft-core restraint – betray a dated AFTRS sensibility that undermines Clare’s terror even as it strives to convey her interior world. Sometimes, this approach works in spite of itself: Berlin Syndrome’s most hilarious scene finds Clare decked out in her colourful new gypsy shirt and playing an accordion for her enslaver, which is either a straight-up deranged satire of entitled cultural tourism or a quirky tableau designed to hang in an Eastern suburbs photo gallery. “What’s the German word for complicate?” Clare asks Andi in an early scene. Shortland’s film can’t quite answer, despite its best efforts to engage.
At 62, French director Olivier Assayas is nearly a generation removed from Shortland, but his new film, Personal Shopper, also in cinemas, displays a conversely intuitive, almost millennial understanding of the changing European landscape and the New World citizens who populate it. Superficially it shares Berlin Syndrome’s premise of a young Western interloper trapped in Europe, here a celebrity assistant and psychic medium named Maureen (Kristen Stewart), whose claustrophobic proximity to her German boss confines her to a spiritually deficient orbit in Paris; presumably as foreign to her as Berlin is to Clare.
But Maureen, enigmatically inhabited by Stewart, possesses a determined ambivalence that insulates her to a world in flux, light-years removed from the basic antipodean passions of Palmer’s Clare. Maureen is an avant-garde shapeshifter, moving with ease between cities and languages, negotiating high and low culture, the digital and the real. She’d never fall for Andi’s trap in Berlin Syndrome; and if she did, she’d likely escape via a portal into some parallel dimension.
Assayas moves to a similar intercontinental rhythm, teasing out Maureen’s pragmatic dislocation and plugging into the malleable, millennial identity that escapes Shortland’s lagging perspective. Despite Assayas’ seniority, his lingua franca formalism has long tangled with realms beyond the art house, be they video games, action genres or the supernatural. Assayas, and Personal Shopper, realise the Old World is dissolving – and with it, its filmmaking clichés. Australia would do well to try and catch him.