Somersault director Cate Shortland’s latest film Berlin Syndrome, a disturbing kidnap thriller, is her second examination of Germany’s postwar psyche. For her next work she returns to the Snowy Mountains for a postcolonial true crime series. By Steve Dow.

Berlin Syndrome director Cate Shortand on the dark within us

Cate Shortland
Cate Shortland

At age four, she was in hospital for pneumonia, an indelible memory given the temporary separation from her mother, as much as for her mum’s get-well gift: an illustrated copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the English translation of the early 19th-century German brothers’ stories. The imagery was macabre and terrifying, primal input for the filmmaker the child would become. One panel appeared to show the Big Bad Wolf raping Little Red Riding Hood.

Cate Shortland, born in the New South Wales Riverina, grew up in the Canberra suburb of Duffy, and could see the Brindabella mountain ranges from the window of the family kitchen. The youngest of three daughters to a father who drove and later sold trucks, and a mother who was a medical receptionist, she recalls her dad running the family home like the regimented Church of England boys’ orphanage in which he grew up.

“We weren’t allowed to show emotion,” Shortland says. “I was always told to be a good girl, and to have good manners. I think my characters are fighting that – all of them. It’s their downfall.” She recollects a “lot of power struggles”, prompting one sister to rebel and run away
in her teens.

Forgiveness has been a conscious theme in Shortland’s films, notably with her 2004 debut feature, Somersault, starring Abbie Cornish as a teen runaway. Shortland wrote and directed the film, in which Cornish’s character, Heidi, originally written as 15, became 16 to avoid censorship problems.

Less conscious motifs recur through Shortland films, dredged from dreams: a large dog barking; one man beating another to death with a blunt instrument. There is always a female protagonist, experimenting with her blooming sexuality, her agency threatened by male privilege. An outsider appears as a saviour.

Shortland, 48, is seated in a Marrickville pub in Sydney’s inner-west. She is drinking a lemon, lime and bitters. Her husband, Johannesburg-born filmmaker Tony Krawitz, known for Dead Europe and The Kettering Incident, is in Melbourne for four months, making a film. The couple has two adopted children: Jonathan, who is Zulu and born in Malawi, and Ruby, from the Xhosa people of South Africa.

Shortland is about to release her gripping feature film Berlin Syndrome, in which Adelaide-born Teresa Palmer plays Brisbane tourist Clare. The young woman is winding her way past Kottbusser Tor train station and Kreuzberg, once enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall, photographing the architecture but perhaps, speculates the director, with only a cursory understanding of the formerly divided authoritarian east as “really bad” and democratic west as “really good”.

Clare stumbles into a trap set by Andi, a 35-year-old Berliner who saw no justice in the communist German Democratic Republic, which collapsed during his childhood. Played by Max Riemelt, he’s fastidious, obsessive and controlling. His apartment is his kingdom and Clare becomes his captive, clinically documented with photography.

The monstrous Andi’s motives fuel a dark thriller. “He’s constantly trying to create a utopia,” Shortland explains. When I put it to her that it’s a pretty perverse utopia, she agrees. “That’s right. He has a Prussian world view. He’s obsessed with cleanliness and control. He’s got a woman who he makes a doll, and his land is his apartment.”

Based on Australian writer Melanie Joosten’s debut novel of the same name, the film seems likely to spark discussion of gendered violence , although its thriller tropes may raise questions of whether the torture is gratuitous.

“I’m interested to see how women react to the film,” Shortland says, “and I’m interested in how they react to fairytales, and the passive erotic figure: Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, all these women that are trapped, and there’s this male prison guard.” She still has the same copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but hides it from daughter Ruby, now aged nine.

Shortland’s previous feature, Lore, shot in Germany, was the story of five children of Nazi mass-murderers left to fend for themselves after Germany’s surrender in World War II. Shortland co-wrote the script with Robin Mukherjee, and based it on one of three  stories in The Dark Room, a fictional work by Rachel Seiffert, a British-born writer of German-Australian parentage. The eldest of the children, played by Saskia Rosendahl, has been indoctrinated to believe in fascism.

Old family photographs used in Lore belong to Shortland’s grandmother-in-law, Frankfurt-born Leisal Frank, a German Jew who survived the Holocaust by fleeing Germany in 1937, and who is now 102.

Shortland and her family lived in Berlin on and off for two years while making the film. It was critically well received but the director says there were Germans who criticised her, as an outsider and a convert to Judaism, for making a film about the German war experience.

While Shortland, Krawitz and their children celebrate both Jewish and Christian holidays, Shortland is not observant, and certainly did not have a religious upbringing, having a father who became atheist.

“The beautiful thing about my dad now is, I have become really close to him,” Shortland says. “He came to Berlin and lived with us. He’s been on set with me and on set when my husband’s filming. He buys him bottles of whisky and they talk politics.”

There was a time, after the release of Somersault and the television crime thriller The Silence, starring Richard Roxburgh, when she thought she wouldn’t make another movie. Several years ago, she told Inside Film magazine there was a “climate of fear about the industry and making films here. I didn’t want to be a filmmaker after that.”

Now, she tells me, with distance, she realises the issue was personal misgivings of having to talk about herself for publicity or be photographed. She didn’t like the attention. Gradually, her mood shifted, and she became grateful to practise her craft. “I was afraid,” she says. “Now I’m less afraid.”

Shortland recently signed on to direct The Monaro, an eight-part television series for Matchbox Pictures, based on true contemporary crimes reset in the 1830s. It focuses on five women, comprising Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, with Jada Alberts, Tommy Murphy and Kate Mulvany among the writers.

South Africa and Germany, Shortland has learnt while living in both countries, deal with terrible histories in a transparent way. For some years, she has pondered the anger at efforts to grapple with Australia’s postcolonial history: “If we, as a nation, could grow into [being transparent],” she told Fairfax in 2012, “it could open the country up in a really profound way.”

Shortland is no stranger to episodic television, having directed episodes of The Secret Life of Us and written more recently for The Slap and Devil’s Playground. Filming of The Monaro will take her back to the region where Somersault was shot, near the Snowy Mountains surrounds of Jindabyne, which she tinged with filtered blue offset with the red woollen gloves of a stumbling Heidi.


Cate Shortland’s ancestor John Shortland came to Australia on the First Fleet, staying in Australia for three decades before returning to England. Other Shortland family members then came to Australia and to New Zealand. “He was an explorer, and I’ve read some of his diaries. I imagined something really disgusting and frightening, but he was intelligent and empathetic.”

Her forebear probably had contact with Indigenous people, although Shortland knows none of the detail. While she’s unlikely to make a film about him, she is keen to explore ideas on home soil, asking where do we find kindness in humanity, and to “just open people up to the idea of being inside Indigenous characters as well as white characters”.

Both of Shortland’s parents left school early, at 13 and 14. Her late mother “was about light, and constant beauty, and drawing our attention to human kindness and then to the beauty of nature, music, literature”. Her father found “surfing and skiing was his way of being close” with his children.

“There was never any outlet for [his childhood] trauma or loss,” Shortland says. “So he just controlled his environment.” As a kid, Shortland used to constantly draw the outlines of houses, “re-creating space”. An idealised version of home? “Yeah, totally.”

Her middle sister, Anne Charlton, ran unsuccessfully as Labor’s candidate for the seat of Robertson in the most recent federal election. Charlton poignantly wrote in 2015 to party preselectors, revealing her own “painful and traumatic” family life and period as a teen runaway, in trouble with the law at 16 for stealing, before rebuilding her life.

Today, Charlton works with homeless youth, having devoted many years to working with vulnerable families through drug and alcohol services. Eldest sister Lisa Shortland, meanwhile, works with child cancer patients at the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick, and with her partner has two Indigenous foster children.

In her 20s, Cate Shortland tutored for four years at an Indigenous homework centre in Redfern. “The more we look at a global situation, we feel really powerless, but it’s that inaction locally I feel I need to target, and do more in my community. To have empathy and time for someone in your local community – no one fucking does it, you know? Hardly.”

Class in Australia is “really prevalent”, Shortland has said, “but it’s not often discussed … we try to pretend that it is an egalitarian culture. But it’s not.”

Did she feel the class divide growing up? “I really did. I think because my parents had left school so early, we were like little socialists. But they also poisoned us with this fear that money meant something dirty; that if you had money you weren’t such a nice person, or you were posh.

“Then there was the other side of it, which was just clambering after what the others had: wouldn’t it be great, buying into a BoysTown raffle, and imagining ourselves living on the waterways in Queensland? So, it was like this mistrust of money, and then absolute desire for it.”

Shortland met Tony Krawitz in Surry Hills in the early 1990s. “I wasn’t trying to make films then,” she says. “I was just trying to find love when I met him. He’s really strong, and he’s really gentle, and he’s funny. And he’s really, really, really smart.”

She converted to Judaism about a decade ago, in line with Krawitz’s religion. The couple lived in South Africa for two-and-a-half years, where they worked for a non-government organisation outside Soweto.

Shortland will accompany Krawitz on his next shoot, and the couple will take Ruby, who enjoys writing stories and dancing, with them. Jonathan, now 22, is a mechanic in Sydney. “It’s not tricky for Tony and I, who are vagabonds, to travel, but it is difficult for children who have a friends and a social life and schoolteachers,” Shortland says.

“Tony’s next shoot is probably going to be in an Indigenous community, so there are rich experiences that will bring [for Ruby], but, as a parent, you just feel guilty. We asked her if she wanted to stay in her local school, or all three of us stay together, and she said she’d rather travel.”

Shooting for The Monaro, meanwhile, is a little way off, with casting yet to begin. Shortland says the series will not be making a political point about racial conflict, but rather, “we’re making something really intimate, violent, sexual and detailed”.

Of all her films, perhaps it’s Lore’s prejudice that stays with Shortland most. “As I went deeper and deeper into fascism and the Holocaust, which was a really painful experience, I realised people made terrible choices and believed in terrible things. But we are doing some terrible things, right now,” she says.

“We’re all monsters. I think we just civilise ourselves. It’s so beautiful when you see kindness and vulnerability. I think if you realise we all have the potential for terrible, monstrous deeds – when people don’t choose that, that’s the beauty.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2017 as "Cate expectations".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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