Paula Beer shines in Christian Petzold’s off-beat romantic drama, in a role that nabbed her the best actress prize at Berlin.


Paula Beer


The opening scene of Undine illustrates quite splendidly the skill of the German filmmaker Christian Petzold. He takes us straight into the story at a moment of crisis giving us no background details and no information about the characters but, far from feeling at sea, we are hooked immediately. That's because our first sight of Undine (Paula Beer) and of Johannes (Jacob Matchenz) is shot so involvingly in close-up that we recognise instantly that we are observing a meeting at which two lovers are on the point of breaking up, a situation that leaves Undine tearful. Over the years Petzold has found regular collaborators including photographer Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler and costume designer Katharina Ost and they all add to the impact here. So do the players, in particular the leading lady. Petzold has developed a special empathy with actresses: he made many films with the great Nina Hoss and now Undine marks his second work with Paula Beer following on from 2018's Transit. For her performance in Undine, Beer received the Silver Bear Best Actress award at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival and fully deserved it.


However, while I do expect fine acting in Petzold's films and have long appreciated his directorial skills, that does not mean that I am an admirer of his work despite all the acclaim that he has received. He is regularly the writer of his own films whether in collaboration or alone and I have frequently felt that the stories he chooses to tell develop in ways that seem contrived and unconvincing. With Undine my doubts appear for once to have been shared more widely than before. Perhaps that is because here it is not just the development that is hard to take but the basic idea on which the tale is formulated. We are asked to accept what is on the one hand a contemporary love story presented in relatively realistic terms but which at the same time is also a refashioning of the ancient myth of the water sprite Undine and this combination is an uneasy one throughout.


Petzold's film introduces Undine as an historian who is employed at Berlin's City Museum where she acts as a guide to special guests when they are shown the elaborate models of the city which are on display there. Her name links her with the legendary figure as does her response in that opening scene to the notion of Johannes leaving her: 'I'll need to kill you', she says, but no explanation is offered as to how this woman comes to be a modern Undine nor is there any reminder that the original tale concerns a sprite in love with a human who has in consequence gained a soul but whose destiny is to murder her lover should he betray her.


Petzold is giving us a variation on the original tale but he fails to come up with any clear idea or insight that would justify such an approach. So quickly does Petzold's Undine fall in love again that Johannes hardly seems relevant. Her new love is Christoph (Franz Rogowski) whose occupation as an industrial diver conveniently leads to underwater footage, the unsettling appearance of a large catfish and an indication that Undine's real lair is under the waterline. Meanwhile we see quite a lot of Undine at work and the detailed references to models of Berlin and how its history has been reshaped over the years may or may not echo Petzold's revamping of the ancient Undine myth.


The film juggles these elements without ever really justifying what it is doing. For all the atmospheric touches that make water a key element in the film, the best way to enjoy Undine is to focus on the love story between Undine and Christoph and to more or less push everything else to one side. Their tale is accompanied by a wholly apt musical theme taken from the works of J.S. Bach and, even though this aspect of the piece concludes rather oddly with a segment set two years later, this is the part of the film that really works. Rogowski who also played opposite Beer in Transit does well again here, but it is above all Beer herself who shines. Her performance lights up the screen but nevertheless it can't conceal the fact that Undine is a very odd piece of work.




Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz, Anne Ratte-Polle, Rafael Stachowiak, Julia Franz Richter, Gloria Endres de Oliveira, José Barros.


Dir Christian Petzold, Pro Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber, Screenplay Christian Petzold, Ph Hans Fromm, Art Dir Merlin Ortner, Ed Bettina Böhler, Costumes Katharina Ost.


Schramm Film/Koener & Weber/Les Films du Losange/ZDF/Arte France Cinéma/Canal+/Ciné+-Curzon.
91 mins. Germany/France. 2020. Rel: 2 April 2021. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. No Cert.