Berlin Syndrome, a film I had been anticipating for months after reading Bryan Bishop’s review in The Verge, is finally out on DVD and VOD. The film is directed by Cate Shortland and adapted from the novel by Melanie Joosten.
Berlin Syndrome is a slow-burn movie that lacks any significant onscreen body count, but is disturbing nonetheless. In many respects, it reminds me of the John Fowles novel The Collector and its film adaptation starring Terrence Stamp. Both stories are about men who “collect” the women with whom they are obsessed. Arguably, both stories are also about Nice Guys as villains. Note that I differentiate nice guys from Nice Guys, the former being genuinely good and kind people who happen to be men, and the latter are men merely performing a social script of niceness to cover an ulterior agenda, and who are not nice people at all. For more information about the scourge of Nice Guy behavior and their diseased mindset, read this excellent article by Dr. Nerdlove, or listen to my guest appearance as part of a roundtable discussion on the KitchenShrinks podcast episode about benevolent sexism.
Berlin Syndrome nicely exposes Nice Guy psychology and their twisted view of women and relationships. Thankfully, most Nice Guys do not keep women as human captives, but if they had the means to do so without getting caught, they would likely view it as an effective solution to being “friendzoned.” (Although even then, the Nice Guy would view the female captive as a moocher or gold-digger, living in his home rent free and therefore definitely owing him sexual favors.) In Berlin Syndrome, an Australian tourist Clare has a one-night-stand with Berlin Nice Guy Andi, who can’t accept that she doesn’t want a long-term relationship with him. Once Clare is Andi’s captive, she discovers that Andi is a serial kidnapper and possible serial killer, abducting a new victim as soon as the “romance” is gone in his relationship with the current captive. When we see Andi interact with multiple potential victims, we see that all of his charming and endearing behaviors are just part of a script that he repeatedly performs. Like all Nice Guys, Andi hates women, and in fact sees them as literally dirty, as evidenced by his compulsive urge to wash himself after being touched by a female coworker.
I have not read Melanie Joosten’s novel, and therefore don’t know if it provides further insight into Andi’s simultaneous hatred of women and desire to keep women as captives to fulfill his romantic fantasies. But his behavior fits nicely within Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, as discussed in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. As discussed in an earlier essay, the necrophilous personality is not the same as necrophilia, though the personality and the paraphilia can coexist. One trait of the necrophilous personality is to transform, literally or metaphorically, something that is alive into something that is dead. In The Collector, Miranda’s captor kills and collects butterflies. Instead of admiring these living creatures in the wild, he kills them and keeps their bodies on display so that he can enjoy looking at them. Miranda realizes in horror that, in his mind, she is exactly like those butterflies. In Berlin Syndrome, Andi compulsively photographs Clare, sometimes in candid moments, other times forcing her to model lingerie. When she behaves in a sexually provocative manner during one of these photo sessions, seemingly mocking Andi’s fantasies, he becomes upset with her. She is perhaps too alive with too much a mind of her own. Fromm himself discussed the the compulsive need to take photographs as a symptom of necrophilous personality in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. True crime author Brian Masters, himself influenced by Fromm’s work, took the observation further in his biography The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer:
“The person, once threateningly alive, now exists insofar as the photographer allows him to exist through images of his creating. It is a translation of life into death, of sentience into petrification, of will into object, the dissolution of all into one triumphant thing—the photograph. (p. 163) … It is important to recognize that the camera does not enhance, it reduces (in so far as the person photographed is now no more than an image), and it insultingly proclaims ownership too. (p. 164).”
For the antagonists in The Collector and in Berlin Syndrome, women’s autonomy is somehow so threatening that the Nice Guy psychopaths need to assert control at any cost. They would rather have a sterile, scripted “relationship” than risk rejection or the dreaded Friendzone. Fortunately, things ultimately work out for Clare better than they did for Miranda in The Collector, with women helping each other escape from a horrible situation.