Paula Beer is slippery and effective in this modern-day spin on the ancient myths
Dir/scr: Christian Petzold. Germany. 2020. 91mins
The legend of the undine (or ondine) – a female water sprite who can marry a mortal man, but must kill him if he is unfaithful – is given an engaging contemporary makeover, to a soundtrack by Bach and the Bee Gees, in German auteur Christian Petzold’s follow-up to Transit. Arguably all of Petzold’s films are about hauntings of one form or another, but Undine is the first since Yella in 2007 to flirt openly with the supernatural genre.
A spry, arch modern ghost story
The premise behind a myth whose roots go back to classical Greece and which inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is clearly sketched in an efficient script that falters a little only in its over-hasty supernatural denouement. Petzold’s lean, crisply-shot tale is a deft shape-changer, switching mood and register, interlacing romance with suspense and sudden jabs of humour.
It also marks another high point in the seemingly unstoppable rise of his Transit actress Paula Beer. Having broken out in Francois Ozon’s Frantz in 2016, and impressed in 2018’s Never Look Away, not to mention her role in the German smash hit TV series Bad Banks, she has a substantial role here as the eponymous Undine, a seemingly grounded, professional modern Berliner with a good municipal job as a historian of the city’s urban development.
We first see Undine in an opening café scene shortly after her partner, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) has told her he’s seeing someone else. It’s a good example of Petzold at his economic best as, through tears, she tells him to think again, because if he leaves she’s going to kill him. She’s distracted from her purpose, however, by Christoph (Beer’s Transit co-star Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who, in a hilarious, tender scene involving a smashed aquarium tank, suddenly fills the void left by Johannes not half an hour earlier.
Undine can only, it seems, love completely, but for the smitten, malleable Christoph, that’s just fine. Although he might not notice, the audience soon picks up on Undine’s robotic walk, the fact that she seems to have no friends, and the cold, controlling edge that lies behind her passion.
Beer walks the tightrope between natural and weird with a fine sense of balance. She’s brilliant in a couple of scenes when things don’t go as she planned, looking for all the world like a malfunctioning computer. Rogowski is fine as Undine’s devoted new flame (one nice aspect of the film is the fact that its men are basically just love objects). Many of his underwater scenes were shot in a reservoir near the director’s home region of Wuppertal,.
Perhaps Petzold’s most risky move in Undine is his decision to load this spry, arch modern ghost story with an apparently extraneous subtext about the planning history of Berlin (as delivered by Undine to the groups of visitors she guides around huge scale models of the city). One target is the city’s ongoing Humboldt Forum project, a partial reconstruction of the demolished 18th century Berlin Palace. The writer-director lays out this discourse as something which the audience is free to connect with the legend that underpins the main story – or not.
Production companies: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber
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Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf
Screenplay: Christian Petzold
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Production design: Merlin Ortner
Editing: Bettina Bohler
Main cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz