A historian in Berlin’s urban planning department, Undine (Paula Beer) is cannot accept that Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) is leaving her. Despite her threatening to kill him, Johannes leaves her anyway. Unable to process his absence, Undine is instead seduced by the clumsy charms of industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski).  However, when Johannes tries to re-enter her life, a mysterious sequence of events takes over, all of which reveals which much more than just Undine’s real feelings…

…wisely conceals Undine’s true nature until the very end.

A German myth based on a French folk-tale, the character of themes of ‘Undine’ has been visited in numerous productions of opera, ballet, film and literature. However, for director Christian Petzold’s 2020 update, he has chosen to start his version in the third act of its usual narrative set in modern-day Berlin.

In terms of story ‘Undine’ has an uncanny connection to her job as a historian in the city’s Stadtmusesum. For a city that was been built-up on a mediaeval mud plane, it’s like she’s personally witnessed it all before. Disenchanted by the unreliability of love in modern-day Berlin, Undine also seems like a wronged, vengeful woman when we meet first her. Expertly portrayed, Paula Beer imbues Undine with an almost autistic directness which beautifully underscores her black and white capacity for passion. When she meets Franz Rogowski’s ruggedly dense Christoph, it’s clearly his lack of presumption that attracts her. Jacob Matschenz’s Johannes return in the third act, to inadvertently kick over the sandcastle that Undine’s been building, is the dramatic catalyst for the script’s dramatically aligned dominoes to fall.

With its clearly telegraphed symbolism, metaphors and references in his character’s dialogue, director Christian Petzold wisely conceals Undine’s true nature until the very end. With what feels like an almost post-finale addition, ‘Undine’ ventures in the similar climactic waters of Luc Besson’s memorable ‘Big Blue’, this dip into more than less is small fry comparison to initial world-building.

With its director regularly shortlisted for awards year in, year out with films like 2014’s ‘Phoenix‘ and 2018’s ‘Transit‘, maybe 2020 is the year when Christian Petzold finally takes home the festival-defining golden bear. With its ultimate adherence-to-myth and Paula Beer’s dead-eyed depiction of a fish-out-water (which in itself could compete for best actress), ‘Undine’ is a local fairytale with a universal appeal which could see it drowned in statuettes.

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A Hidden Life
A Hidden Life