Even if the Sundance Festival doesn’t always offer one, Teresa Palmer is a contender for an acting award for her understated portrayal as a woman taken captive by her new German lover (Max Riemelt) in Cate Shortland’s third feature Berlin Syndrome which premiered in Sundance on Friday. The wily Aussie actress also should be awarded for being a trouper given her ability to take control as the final scenes of the film were left in the balance after a screening failure at the premiere screening. Palmer grabbed the microphone and described the all important scenes to the audience, while a clearly emotional Shortland and producer Polly Staniford took a few questions.
“Cate looked like she was going to die, well, burst into tears,” Palmer told me the following day. “Even Max was a bit shaky. It was like, whatever, we’ve got to laugh at this. It’s happened and the only thing we can do is encourage the audience and tell them ‘Thank you for coming’. I noticed people were starting to leave so I was like, ‘Alright, we’ve got to get up and say something’.”
The projection breakdown had proved particularly upsetting as a huge amount of effort had gone into the final scenes, which were filmed using a mixture of Berlin locations and the Docklands Studios in Melbourne. By the time I spoke to Shortland and Staniford the following day, they’d come to terms with the mishap.
Polly Staniford: There’s this build up and all this anxiety around the film and you want it to be perfect. It was a freak accident, I suppose.
Cate Shortland: Also the inauguration of Trump was yesterday and we have to put it in perspective. It’s like a heel coming off your shoe; it’s an awkward moment. But f..k there’s a lot more going on in the world.
HB: You seem to be like-minded. Did you know each other before?
PS: No I just loved Cate’s work. I sent her Melanie Joosten’s book and the first draft of Shaun Grant’s screenplay and she loved it and came on board. Financing was a little tricky as we wanted to shoot quite lot of it in Germany because the film’s set in Berlin. But we decided not to do a coproduction. Cate had done a coproduction previously and they’re quite tricky with legals and financing. And there was not a lot of money in Germany for this kind of film.
HB: How does the structure of the film differ from the book?
PS: The book is non linear and starts half way through the story. We decided for the film that it really needed to start at the beginning, to start with the love story and then go very dark. So we did change it quite a lot.
HB: What attracts you to Germany given that your previous film, 2012’s Lore, was also set there?
CS: When I was at uni I studied fascism – that was my major in history – and slavery. So I’ve always been interested in totalitarian states. Then my husband’s family are German Jews and his grandma left Berlin in 1937, which was quite late. So my whole kind of history makes it a dynamic place to be because I’m always fighting with it and fighting with the culture. I love the way that the German people in Berlin are also doing that, so you feel empowered and you feel curious and you’re allowed to say what you think.
It’s one of the few places in the world where they deal with the history in a really dynamic way and it’s part of the everyday. It's a living, breathing history and that made it such a dynamic place to make this film, because we were talking to people like Max, whose family are from the GDR. His mother had a Stasi file on her that she was allowed to read after the Wall came down and she discovered that her boyfriend had been spying on her.
Polly and I were both really interested in the mix of politics in the film, the sexuality and gender issues as well as it being emotional. For me I always have to relate on an emotional level, like with Lore. I’m not interested in making intellectual films; it has to be something where I’m going to touch the audience and affect them. I hope we succeeded with that.”
Watch 'Berlin Syndrome'
Sunday 13 June, 12:20am on SBS VICELAND (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Drama
Language: English, German
Director: Cate Shortland
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Matthias Habich, Emma Bading