The abduction and entrapment of young women has become a surprising new calling-card movie for indie directors and actors. From the Oscar-winning success of Room, to Split, to the current indie shocker of Hounds of Love, and even comedies such as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there are many films detailing a horrific and lengthy encasement, but the common thread between all of them is careful attention to the victim—making sure you are rooting for her survival. What makes Berlin Syndrome unique within this set-up is that it features some real intimacy between the monster and his prey but then it also continues to spend time with him to show the makeup of his own being, as opposed to just his captive.
Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge, Lights Out) plays the tourist whose sexual attraction to a Berlin teacher (Max Riemelt) causes her to stay in Germany a few extra days. But after staying over at his place for the night, he locks her inside his apartment (tucked away in an abandoned apartment building) the next morning and makes her not just his sex slave but also his emotional tether. Her attempts for escape require showing sympathy and giving emotional support to her captor, while also discovering a room that proves she was not the first woman he’s held there, and she needs to keep herself alive.
Recently I sat down to take with Palmer (and her hungry infant newborn!) to talk about the psychology of Cate Shortland‘s film (which is the only film directed by a woman during this “kept woman” renaissance), her own obsession with true crime serials, and got a little update as to whether or not she’d return for Lights Out 2.
COLLIDER: It seems like we are starting to see a number of films that are approaching abduction and “kept” women from various angles. Why do you think there is that curiosity to explore that in so many different ways right now?
TERESA PALMER: Yeah, I’m noticing in general that there is a fascination with darker stories. If you look at the explosion of documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Keepers, now on Netflix, there seems to be a movement towards exploring the darker sides of ourselves. I’m not really sure what the psychology is there, but for me, I’m interested in it because it’s such a juxtaposition to what is going on in my life with a newborn, as you can see. So because of that juxtaposition I’m really fascinated by it, but I’m equally terrified by it, and I think that diving in it makes me feel safer as a woman and a mother for some reason. Knowing more about it is therapeutic in a weird way. I’ve always been drawn to documentaries since I was a little girl. I loved Unsolved Mysteries. I was a true crime buff at the youngest age. With this one I loved the element of Stockholm Syndrome because I think that’s something brushed under the carpet more often than not.
Yeah, there are elements of escape here, but generally, these films tend to focus on the escape and not as much the psychology of entrapment.
PALMER: Yeah, and I love that this story is not black and white and actually focuses on the humanity of each and every person, no matter how dark they may seem. I saw little beads of goodness in Andy. Little, tiny, pinprick beads of goodness, and I love that Cate Shortland was brave enough to explore that too, because it can be controversial. I also think that we took a genre that has typically been done in a certain way and flipped it on it’s head. We give the perpetrator a voice too, and we see his backstory, and we get to have a deeper insight into why he’s making the choices he’s making. I really love that. It’s also, in a sick sense, a coming-of-age story for Clare too in this warped reality. In this prison-like environment, she comes into her own. I found the human behavior really fascinating.
You said you were interested in these stories at early age, and I think that actually speaks to why many of us are having obsessions with darker stories, like you said. I know I had spirals of research on my own that I wasn’t really talking about to people, and now it’s like this collective “oh, you’re interested in that messed-up thing as well?”
PALMER: Yeah! There is actually a nickname given to people who are fascinated by these stories. There’s this podcast called My Favorite Murder which is these two comedians who get together and talk about their favorite true crime stories. It’s interesting because they’re comedians and it’s very darkly funny. They call people “murderinos” when you’re interested in it but you have a really great life and you’re bubbly—they especially find it funny when moms have this interest. And I have a few friends of mine, and we all go to this spiritual mama’s group, but on the side we are all into these “true crime” podcasts. So I have kept that very close to my chest because I was somewhat ashamed of the fact that I was the person that would drive by the accident and look twice. You know, like you crank your head to look and see what’s going on [laughs]. There’s an intrigue into the morbid I think because I’m afraid of it. But it’s nice that I can actually share this interest, and there’s a huge movement of people also interested and actually finally admitting their fascination with the dark.
Can you explain your working process with Cate as far as creating the completely isolated atmosphere?
PALMER: We talked about how insular it would feel, we talked about claustrophobia. I shared, actually, my experience reading 3,096 Days, which is a book by Natascha Kampusch, who was abducted when she was 10 years old and in captivity for around 8 years, and I shared with Cate the stories that I learned and things that I’d read about that Natascha so generously shared in her book. She was very open about her experiences. I delved into that kind of psychology. Cate was also very open about her own life experiences, and we got down and dark. We just got in that rehearsal room and we went deep. We talked about a lot of life experiences that we’d both had and things we connected on, and just put that into the character.
At the beginning of the film I kept noticing that your character subtly pulled away but accepted intimacy. Like him touching her finger, those little touchy movements were very intensely felt. Did you come up with some type of backstory for her of why she was bristling but also receptive? Like, what her previous experiences were?
PALMER: Yeah, I had written this extensive backstory. I felt like she had a mother that was very absent, but she knew of her mother as an overly sexual individual. My husband’s mom, my mother-in-law, worked in the sex industry and she shares her stories very openly, and I just always think about what that would be like if my mother-in-law had a daughter, and how her own life experience would have manifested into her daughter’s experience. I think that she was touched by the way that she was brought up by her mother and she has a void within her that she fills with external things. So she’s not going inward for comfort, she’s finding comfort from external places. I think that she puts Andy in that void. She’s filling her void with him. And her confidence comes out sexually, and it’s quite therapeutic for her. It’s so interesting because it’s the polar opposite to me [laughs], and to explore things like that was very foreign, but again, fascinating.
I know that his apartment for most everyone should scream “don’t go in there!” The hallway is drab and there’s peeling paint everywhere, you don’t see anyone ever come around. But as for myself, I’m attracted to venture into places with peeling paint, and areas that are crumbling a little bit. It makes sense because we’ve already established her photography focusing on architecture, even if it looks incorrect, there’s something appealing about entering that.
PALMER: I’ve dated guys before who are just like the coolest guys who were artistic and they knew good music. They just were like kinda scruffy and dirty and a little bit mysterious and dark. Their houses, were kind of, you know [laughs]? Had strange things in them, and I thought “oh wow! This is cool! This is so interesting. I wanna lean into this mystery.” And she’s got that vibe, but I did that in my twenties. I soon grew up and married the kind guy; the one that’s a great father and all those things. But at the age of 20 if I had gotten married I’m sure I would have definitely picked the wrong person. I get what’s so attractive about him, even if there are red flags [about him] for everyone else, I understand why she takes the risk with him.
I recently went to Budapest and Vienna, and Budapest has all of these ruin bars and I felt like I was in my twenties. But then I went to Vienna and I was like, “oh, this is where I should be” [laughs].
PALMER: [Comforting her crying baby] You said the ruins? But then you grow up!
It felt so foreign…and when I got to Vienna I felt like I was in my forties and it felt like that was what I was more ready to be older.
PALMER: I know. Isn’t it funny when you have that sudden realization, like, “oh wow! I’m an adult now! I’m making adult decisions!” [laughs]?
Just one question, concerning Lights Out, do you have any update on the sequel?
PALMER: Yeah! I have, which is really exciting because I loved making that film. It’s a standalone horror film. It’s just different from all the horror films I’ve seen in that there’s this rich characters study, especially bringing to light mental illness, and my character that was navigating through her mother’s journey with mental illness. I thought there were complex issues inside this horror film. So I loved the story as a dramatic piece of work, and we got to tuck in this horror element into it, too. I know the writer of Lights Out (Eric Heisserer) is working on the sequel, and he actually wrote Arrival as well, so he has been doing all of the rounds of the awards seasons. Well, not all the awards seasons, the award season…
It feels like there’s an all because it’s so long [laughs]…
PALMER: So many of them [laughs]…and now I know he’s working on it right now. I have no idea what it’s gonna be and how we can pick up from the last movie, what story we can tell, but I know that there is more to tell of the story. I’m really excited about it.
Berlin Syndrome is currently available on VOD services.