Berlinale 2020 review: Undine (Christian Petzold)

The Undine myth goes way back, and has been a recurring motif in art throughout the centuries. Interpretations can be found in The Little Mermaid or Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and His Soul. The last time the myth entered cinema was in Neil Jordan’s Ondine. Undine tells the story of a water sprite in human form who must kill her lover should he betray her. Christian Petzold has taken this fairy tale and modernized it while retaining the magical and mythical elements of the story to create an unabashedly romantic film that also turns the myth around to give the female water nymph more agency.

A lot of things are broken and then put back together again in Undine: figurines, water tanks, underwater turbines, even the city of Berlin itself. And so too the relationships of Undine (Paula Beer). At the start of the film she is dumped by her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) during a coffee break from work. She explains to him that she will have to kill him. With that bombshell she goes back to work. A historian for the city of Berlin, she gives guided tours about the city’s history based on several large scale models. She doesn’t want to kill Johannes, because that means she will also have to return to the water she came from, the myth prescribes. As luck will have it though, she meets someone else: Christoph (Franz Rogowski). She falls for him, and for the first time experiences true love. For a while the curse seems lifted. But Undine can’t keep running from destiny forever…

The continuous regeneration of breaking down and building up gives Petzold the chance to say something about timelessness, even if often the new is not quite the same as the old. Take Berlin for instance. Through Undine’s explanations on her tours we find out that much of Berlin’s rich history is being erased, as the city is broken down and rebuilt. This demolished past is turning into myth, and thus ties into this specific version of the Undine myth which itself is one of breaking down (a man betraying his lover) and building up (Undine finding a new lover). This motif recurs later in the film in a magical way when Undine can no longer escape killing Johannes in order to save Christoph: the Christoph who is saved from the clutches of death will never be the same without his Undine.

Undine is a film that is destined to be divisive. Those who can go along with its fantastical elements will find it a reworking of the classic myth in which the heroine has a certain agency: she can choose to escape her curse, at least for a time. It is a new thing for her, an innocent love, happy and inquisitive. Beer and Rogowski’s chemistry, which already sizzled in Petzold’s previous film Transit, is palpable in every scene they share together. Their meeting is the kind of romantic whimsy that Petzold gets just right without it turning kitschy. And from that moment on you are invested in this odd couple, she a water creature in human form with a curse on her tail, he an industrial diver with an intense curiosity and love for her. Set to Bach’s timeless pieces, the middle section of Undine’s and Christoph’s romance is happy-grin inducing stuff. The final act is confounding, but by sheer willpower, Petzold and his actors make it work. A bravura attempt, Undine requires a viewer that succumbs to its fantasy, but those who do so will have their hearts skip a beat.

Photo copyright: Hans Fromm / Schramm Film