Berlin Syndrome

Given that the Sundance Film Festival consists of literally hundreds of screenings, it’s an inevitability that something will go wrong at some of them. On Friday night, the world premiere of Cate Shortland‘s Berlin Syndrome was hit with spectacularly bad luck when the DCP projection froze roughly 5 or 10 minutes before the ending, leaving star Teresa Palmer to explain the ending to a bemused audience. 

The Berlin Syndrome screening had already suffered a slight hiccup earlier in the film when a PA announcement mistakenly stated that the venue would be closing in 8 minutes. We in the audience laughed it off and went back to the movie. But things got so much worse as the film neared its big climax.

Berlin Syndrome is a dramatic thriller about a young tourist (Palmer) who’s taken captive by a man (Riemelt) she met while traveling through Germany. As you can imagine, the film builds tension throughout and peaks in intensity with the climax at the very end. It was in the middle of that climax that the projection suddenly froze.

The initial attempts to fix the issue only made the experience worse. First, we saw a few scenes from a version of the film that had a giant watermark, picking up a few minutes after we’d left off. Then that version of the movie cut out. As the team continued their efforts to get the regular version running again, they inadvertently showed bits and pieces from the very end of the movie, which revealed exactly how the story ended. By this point, the audience was getting more restless and more frustrated.

At that point, a decision was made to jump right into the Q&A, so Shortland, Staniford, Palmer, and Riemelt were all ushered out front. Of course, it’s terribly hard to do a Q&A when the audience hasn’t seen the end of the movie, so Palmer wound up giving a play-by-play of the entire climax to the audience, with assistance from Riemelt and the others. She handled the situation about as well as she could, given the circumstances, putting on a bright smile and trying to make the best of it.

Once Palmer finished recapping the ending of her movie, the floor opened up for questions… and the first one was an angry audience member who ranted that the Sundance staff should be begging the Berlin Syndrome team for forgiveness. After an awkward movement, the Q&A moved on, and then the projection was finally fixed, and we were able to watch the end of the movie. By this point, perhaps 20 minutes had passed since our the projection had originally frozen.

It’s a shame Berlin Syndrome‘s world premiere screening went so poorly, especially because the film itself is quite good and probably would have played even better were it not for that long interruption. Shortland does an excellent job of building tension throughout the movie, making much of it a supremely uncomfortable experience (in a good way). The actors are excellent as predator and prey, and their performances keep evolving as the characters’ dynamic gets more complicated. Riemelt, in particular, is terrifyingly adept at weaponizing his charisma.

I can only imagine that this situation was a heartbreaking and devastating one for them, and it’s frankly remarkable that they were all able to keep their composure as well as they did. As Shortland said to us, “This is literally a filmmaker’s worst nightmare.”

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