24-02-2020

FNE at Berlinale 2020: Review: Undine

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Undine by Christian Petzold Undine by Christian Petzold

BERLIN: This is the fifth time in the main competition for German director Christian Petzold who has scored a slot in the lineup with Undine based on the myth of the water nymph which he has updated and set in contemporary Berlin.  Audiences will remember Petzold for his fine work on previous films Barbara, Phoenix and Transit that were major hits with critics and international art house audiences.  Petzold is a director that likes to take the woman’s point of view in his films and Undine is no exception.

For those not up on their mythology, Undine is a water nymph who can take on human form only if she falls in love with a man who swears undying love and loyalty.  But Undine has to kill her lover should he ever betray her.  So when Undine played by Paula Beer meets her lover Johannes played by Jacob Matschenz at their usual café near the Berlin City Museum where Undine works as a historian and he tells her that he is leaving her it presents quite a dilemma.  Shocked she tells her husband in no uncertain terms that if he leaves her she will have to kill him.

But Undine soon meets up with Christophe an industrial diver played by Franz Rogowski in the same café where she has recently broken up with Johannes.  During their first meeting an eerie accident happens when an aquarium on a shelf above bursts covering them both with water.  This must be love. And Christophe becomes her true love in a way that Johannes never was.  Christophe is tender, sentimental, devoted and rather fond of water and all things wet.  He has been working at a lake near Wuppertal.  Underwater creatures including a giant catfish he encounters in the lake seem to be his metier.  

Beer and Rogowski also played opposite each other in Petzold’s Transit and the two actors make a convincing pair of lovers with a strong chemistry playing out between them in the love scenes.  Their dousing with water in the aquarium seems to have blest their union and the become lovers soon after playing out tender love scenes in Undine’s apartment.  As an historian Undine’s intellect is genuinely admired by Christophe.  We see her at work guiding groups through through the city museums.  Another scene has Undine speaking about the Berlin Stadtschloss an 18th century palace in the centre of Berlin that was demolished and is being rebuilt.  This not only gives the film some great locations as background but hints at one of Petzold’s main themes that the buildings and myths of the past might change but their essence survives and shapes our present and future.

The narrative seems a bit out of joint when Johannes shows up much later in the film but there is destiny to be or not to be fulfilled and for those who knew their mythology we were expecting him sooner or later.  This is a simple and beautiful film and cinematographer Hans Fromm has caught the nuance in the actors’s faces that tells the story just as much as the dialogue.  An arrangement of Bach’s music as the film’s score also underlines the classic simplicity of the tale. 

Undine (Germany, France)
Directed by Christian Petzold
Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz, Anne Ratte-Polle