“Undine”: Berlinale 2020 Film Review

In Christian Petzold’s latest bittersweet fairy tale, young Berliner Undine, named after the aquatic creature of myths, has a chance to escape her preordained fate after a faithless man reneges on promises of love. Is true love all she needs to survive?

“If you leave you must die”, Undine (Paula Beer) sternly tells her soon to be ex (Jacob Matschenz) as he informs her he is leaving for another. Though she looks fierce, her utterance is more a statement of fact than an idle threat made in anger – and if the old fairy tales are anything to go by, then she too is bound to either die or return whence she came, back to an aquatic life.

The parting couple has just met at a café a few steps away from Berlin’s Stadtmuseum, where Undine works as an urban historian. Every day, she narrates to countless tourists the development of the city from swampland to world capital as they mill around scale models of the city.

Such is the fate of a water sprite. As Berlin rose from the marshes and lakes, and the fogs of enchantment subsided, Undine too had to adapt to modern life, and “Undine” the film, despite its mythological theme, is firmly anchored in everyday reality, both visually and in the rules its characters must follow.

Undine returns to her job at the museum, the wheels of fate turn, and then something happens that distracts her. What had been foretold does not happen. A deviation from the inexorable, a dream, respite, a time loop perhaps? Undine meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver and someone who can only be described as an utterly lovely man of immense kindness and open-heartedness. Their encounter occurs in the most fantastic of circumstances. The mould of the classic tragedies seems broken. There may be hope.

Hitherto condemned to kill and die if betrayed by a lover, Undine finds herself not only loved by a loyal man pure of heart, but – finally: she gets to love, no longer just the object of another. This saves her, and it also saves her former, treacherous lover. Undine has better things to do now than execute the injunctions of legend. But for how long?

A recurring musical motif in “Undine”, bars from Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974 – the Adagio – hints at the inevitability of fate and at borrowed time marching on.

“Undine” is a dark fairy tale without artifice or special effects, a ghost story that eschews the supernatural and stands up for itself in the clear light of day. The theme of long-departed lovers who live beyond death in the scarred landscape of German history is a recurring one in Petzold’s work, perhaps a signifier for consciences troubled by betrayal and loss.

Petzold has mentioned in past interviews his fascination for the films of Ozu, Chabrol, Bresson. Their films all have a surface limpidity and a clean cinematic style that belie dark, sometimes stormy emotional depths, and in the case of the underwater scenes in “Undine”, Petzold has also spoken of more charged influences such as Ray Harryhausen – see the film and you will understand – and even Charles Laughton’s sublime “Night of the Hunter”, which includes a powerful underwater scene which has clearly seared itself in Petzold’s mind.

In “Transit”, in “Phoenix”, and here in “Undine”, something – someone – re-surfaces from murky depths of the mind, and with unspoken hopes for some kind of justice. The characters are foreigners in their own country, refugees or escapees of a kind. In this film, Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski play a variation on their previous roles in “Transit”, summoning a similar quality of poetic heartache. If this feels overly romantic, fear not. “Undine” is entirely unaffected in its style, whether visually or in its performances, and the domain it explores could be described as the undertow of love.

“Undine” is also perhaps less poignant than some of Petzold’s recent films, because there is something more abstract about both the story’s hinterland – the topography of Berlin and all it signifies comes to the fore – and its dramatic conclusion. What was meant to happen does happen, but it is a redemptive and eventually sunny end, of sorts.

Director & Writer Christian Petzold
Director of Photography Hans Fromm
Editor Bettina Böhler
With Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz

More KinoSelect reporting from the 70th Berlinale @Berlinale 2020 here.