'Undine': Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Christian Schulz / Schramm Film
An odd new beauty from one of Germany's best directors.

German auteur Christian Petzold returns to the Berlinale competition for the fifth time with his latest, a variation on the myth of water nymph Undine.

The myth of Undine, the water nymph who has to kill her lover should he ever betray her, gets a 21st-century German makeover courtesy of Christian Petzold in his Berlin competition title Undine. The major innovation is that the story doesn’t just concentrate on the betrayal of Undine that might cost her man so dearly — she gets a new and true love story that allows her to feel what it is like to be truly loved.

Petzold has reunited his stars from Transit, the charismatic Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, and gives them the love story they deserve — not necessarily an epic one, but one that’s heartfelt and profound in all its simplicity. 

Like in so much of Petzold’s eerie oeuvre, the past and present rub up against one another in uncomfortable and sometimes confounding ways, which will again limit the commercial prospects of the film, though hopefully distributors will be able to build on the slow-burn critical success of Transit.  

Undine (Beer), in her mid-20s, works as a freelance guide for the Senate Administration for Urban Development in central Berlin. But before giving her usual talk about all the drastic changes that have occurred in the capital over the centuries, her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) breaks up with her on the terrace of a café across the street from her work.

The two scenes, in quick succession, couldn’t be more different. The breakup is shot in tight close-ups of anguished and embittered glances more than words, though from what little is said we can figure out that Johannes has found someone else and Undine certainly plans to follow through on what the legend demands of her, as she tells him he has to die if he leaves. In the next scene, Undine floods the screen with words as she gives her presentation and we see her move around the urban models and with her large visiting group in wide shots that feel the opposite of intimate — and therefore also safer and much less hurtful. It almost seems like this highly professional Undine is someone completely different from the scorned woman we saw across the street. 

Another professional presentation later in the film, about Berlin’s Stadtschloss right smack in the center, offers a key to the earlier scenes, as Undine explains that the age-old castle was demolished during the Socialist era and is now being reconstructed. This leads to the paradox that an 18th-century palace is being (re)built in the 21st century, as if “progress were impossible,” as Undine teasingly suggests. The idea that cities and buildings constantly change and mutate but always retain something of their essence is a very Petzoldian idea that could equally be applied to his characters.

Indeed, what might at first sight have felt like a raw and over-the-top reaction from Undine, in that very first scene, was in reality something preordained, as the myth of Undine dictates that her lover has to die if he betrays her. Johannes’ end was right there, even before Undine found out about his infidelity. 

With this apparent paradox in mind, the story, as it develops, starts to make more sense. Seemingly by accident, Undine meets the industrial diver Christophe (Rogowski) in the same bar where Johannes broke up with her not even an hour earlier. Their meet-cute is one for the ages, as the diver and the young woman named after a water nymph are suddenly flooded by the contents from a high-placed aquarium that abruptly bursts, blessing their union with an unexpected baptism by water, the element both feel attracted to.

Their whirlwind romance is the equivalent of the newly constructed Stadtschloss; it is not the original but actually an improved version of Undine’s love story with Johannes, giving her what Johannes couldn’t. But at the same time, there’s a nagging sense that what she’s getting is not the original. 

Unsurprisingly, water plays an important role throughout the film — Undine comes from the Latin word for “wave,” suggesting both water and movement — and there are several beautifully shot underwater scenes that are perhaps unusual in Petzold’s filmography on a visual level but that make room for his usual thematic concerns. The latter include the past and present co-existing, like when ruins spotted underwater suggest that the past might be invisible on the surface but is nonetheless not gone.

The purpose of an epilogue of sorts involving Johannes isn’t immediately clear, and there are a few other moments that might puzzle viewers. But Beer and Rogowski are so good, and have such amazing chemistry, that it’s hard to look away or not root for them to be together.

Production designer Merlin Ortner has done a superb job cobbling together the different locations, from Undine’s functional but not beautiful apartment — it’s an anonymous backdrop to a beautiful and very personal romance — to the majestic museum locations and the underwater sites, actually specifically constructed for the film.

Hans Fromm’s crystalline cinematography trusts the gorgeous faces of the actors enough to let a look or a gesture tell the story, while the feature’s central idea of timelessness and past and present co-existing is also underlined by Petzold’s choice to use a Bach piece instead of a new score, with Bach, of course, being a contemporary of the architects who gave the Stadtschloss its definitive look. 

Production companies: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber, Les Films du Losange 
Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz
Writer-director: Christian Petzold
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber 
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Production design: Merlin Ortner
Costume design: Katharina Ost
Editing: Bettina Boehler
Casting: Simone Baer
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: The Match Factory

In German
90 minutes