Spoiler Alert: Director Cate Shortland talks twisty thriller ‘Berlin Syndrome’

Sometimes it’s next to impossible to talk to a director about their movie without giving a few things away. And sometimes I just don’t care. Australian director Cate Shortland’s new film Berlin Syndrome falls into that category because 1) it’s a well-made thriller that I wanted to learn how it came together and 2) the twist happens less than halfway through the film. So, if you haven’t seen Berlin Syndrome…maybe come back to this after you’ve had a change (it’s on-demand now after, all). But if you have and found yourself as unnerved by the story as I did, read on.

Lesley Coffin: How were your brought on-board this project?

Cate Shortland: The producer optioned the novel while it was a still a manuscript, and workshopped it at the Melbourne film festival. And when it was optioned, they brought on the screenwriter Shaun Grant, and then me. I think they had a first draft of the script when they brought it to me. The producer sent me the novel, and I was fascinated by the relationship at the center of it.

Lesley Coffin: We’ve seen a lot of abduction stories recently in films, but this film has a really unusual perspective by giving both points of view. What aspects did you want to bring to the film or felt the material offered that was new?

Cate Shortland: The fact that I was invested in the initial relationship was important. And what it said about those abusive relationships that exist and we just don’t see and notice them. Domestic violence isn’t invisible but it is unseen. And this is just the most extreme case of that. And the fact that he can seemingly live a normal life, seems like a charismatic person, but is really in hiding in plain sight.

Lesley Coffin: Did you feel Berlin was a particularly important aspect of the story?

Cate Shortland: It would have been such a different film if I’d set it in Barcelona or Paris. There’s something about the Berlin landscape. The fact that it had been a segregated city for so long, where half the city had essentially been imprisoned. I thought that really mirrored their relationship in the film. Like the country, you can get sucked in by charismatic leaders and suddenly find yourself trapped and under their control, and by the time you see the terror of what they’re doing, it’s too late.  And I think Germans can understand that very well.

Lesley Coffin: Just the footage we’ve seen of the wall being built and how quickly it happened reminds you of how Claire (Teresa Palmer) finds herself trapped.

Cate Shortland: Exactly, no one expected it until it happened. I wanted women to relate to her. And she makes a lot of the choices in their relationship before she finds herself trapped. She wants to have sex with him, she wants to go out dancing with him. So, the thought that someone would be preying on you like that, waiting for her guard to be down is the unthinkable. It’s such a horrendous act. And I think women really respond to the fact that while she is giving up her physical self, she never gives up her spiritual sense of self. I love stories about people who find themselves in tough situations and find ways to get through them and overcome.

Lesley Coffin: I really appreciated your decision to show her desire to have sex with him, but not depict sexual violence after the abduction. I think the more predictable choice would have been to depict a rape on screen.

Cate Shortland: As I did research, there have been a wide variety of accounts. Some women did discuss being raped, but others didn’t. One woman, in Austria, said she’d never been raped. And I wanted to show the ambiguity, never be sure what their sexual relationship was after her abduction. And Teresa even told me that she didn’t think her character had been raped, because he so desperately wanted her to fall in love with him. He just wanted a Barbie Doll girlfriend. And I didn’t want it to become an exploitation film.

Lesley Coffin: Teresa has a lot of physical scenes to play, but she also has a lot of emotional scenes that are pretty hard to watch. What scenes were the most difficult to film?

Cate Shortland: The hardest scenes to play are those when she’s on her own. There is a temptation when on camera to want to entertain, and it can feel as if you’re not doing your job. So, we really have to pull things back and stress that she needed to simply be alive in the space. Because if she tried to show something, it would feel fake.

Lesley Coffin: When you were filming the early scenes in the city, did you use a long lens so you could be at a distance?

Cate Shortland: We did. Primarily because I wanted to see how she’d interact with the public in character.

Lesley Coffin: I love talking about sound design, especially in thrillers. It took me a while to realize some of the effects were cries. How did you come up with that idea?

Cate Shortland: We found on the internet these terrible sounds from slaughterhouses. These distant screams of animals going to the slaughter. And we mixed that with the sounds of trains on the tracks. We wanted a mix of animalistic sounds and industrial sounds.

Lesley Coffin: Well, it’s pretty tense. I loved Max Riemelt’s performance, because of how long he comes across as likable, it’s reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. What decisions did the two of you come to about how to portray that character?

Cate Shortland: We wanted him to feel as realistic as possible, and in most cases, a perpetrator will seem perfectly normal. We all have the idea that it will be this insidious monster, but most of the time they seem like an everyman, with a strange kind of empathy because they really are sick, disturbed people. There is something terribly wrong with him. We also decided he wouldn’t be interested in technology, because that would further allow him to isolate himself.

Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask you how you selected the pieces of literature they would be reading.

Cate Shortland: Most of them are my favorite books, and I studied African American literature. We wanted literature that he could talk about with authority, but without relating it directly to himself. And a lot of the books are about women who are being tortured in some way, even if on an emotional level rather than a physical one. Claire’s always reading, so we kept changing her books to show the passage of time. She’s not just reading these big books, she has the time to finish them.

© Lesley Coffin (6/19/17) FF2 Media

Top and Middle Photos: Teresa Palmer in Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome

Bottom Photo: Max Riemelt and Teresa Palmer in Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

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