Under Petzold’s assured hands, this modern interpretation of the Undine myth mostly works and benefits most from the sublime performances of Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski.
Dir. Christian Petzold
2020 | Germany | Drama/Romance/Mystery | 90 min | 1.85:1 | German, English & Spanish
PG13 (passed clean) for some sexual references
Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree
Plot: Undine works as a historian lecturing on Berlin’s urban development. But when the man she loves leaves her, the ancient myth catches up with her.
Awards: Won Silver Bear – Best Actress & FIPRESCI Prize (Berlinale)
International Sales: The Match Factory
Subject Matter: Moderate – Myth & Modernity
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
With Undine, Christian Petzold continues to show why he is one of Germany’s most interesting directors working today.
Although I wasn’t too enamoured by his previous offering, Transit (2018), Undine is something that I could get behind despite the somewhat preposterous plotting, which is, of course, based on the myth of Undine, a water nymph who is forced to kill her lover if he ever betrays her.
Transposing this story into modern-day Berlin, Petzold has to neuter much of the surrealistic aspects of the myth so that whatever unfolds doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
At the same time, a skilled filmmaker like him would still find visual and structural ways to connect reality with the metaphysical—and he does so with a sense of haunting poeticism, particularly using underwater diving as a recurring narrative connector.
“You said you loved me.”
Undine comes across as a restrained work, even by Petzold’s standards; those who are less generous might even regard it as a minor effort.
However, with his new go-to acting pair, Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, Petzold has found two wonderful actors with intimate chemistry. Their performances are sublime and wholly believable, and in fact, landing Beer a Best Actress win at the Berlinale.
Beer’s Undine is mortal yet mysterious, finding romantic solace in Rogowski’s Christoph, after she finds her lover cheating on her.
She’s also a historian, who lectures on Berlin’s urban development since the mid-20th century—a deliberate decision by Petzold to conflate myth and history, or perhaps to express the idea of continuing adaptability. In that regard, both myth and ‘creature’ must be reconfigured to stay relevant, even if they must fall back on old traditions.