Written by Alina Faulds
Director Christian Petzold brings Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski together again for his latest feature Undine, a love story tinged with European mythology. The film opens on a bitter note, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) brings Undine (Paula Beer) to their regular date spot, a cafe outside the Berlin City Museum-to break up with her. She tells him that she’ll have to kill him. While subtly shown in the film, the title gives Undine’s true presence away. She is an undine, a type of water nymph that longs to live amongst humans. With Johannes breaking up with her he’s doomed Undine, but her luck changes very quickly when she’s swept off her feet by a diver named Christoph (Franz Rogowski).
Undine works best when it focuses on its romance. Petzold previously had Beer and Rogowski act as love interests in his film Transit, and their chemistry is just as present in Undine. Undine and Christoph fall for each other hard, cuddled in each other’s arms as they stroll the streets of Berlin and steal kisses from each other. Undine works as a historian at the Berlin City Museum giving lectures on urban development. Christoph loves her so dearly that he happily listens to her speaking and also takes her diving to see her name carved on an underwater wall. They’re quite the sentimental pair as Undine carries around a diver figurine that looks like it belongs in a fish tank. Rogowski makes Christoph into an extremely kind and loving man, fascinated with Undine’s quiet intensity. Petzold takes meticulous care in crafting the relationship between Undine and Christoph, their love is what ties the film together.
Where Petzold’s film struggles is in its mythology, which is largely brushed over. Undine is supposed to be an undine, but Petzold never makes this clear other than a strange underwater scene with a catfish named Gunther. The water nymph story is not explained very well either, as Petzold goes for a subtler approach with his narrative. When Undine tells Johannes that she’ll have to kill him for breaking up with her, it’s not implied that Undine is a water nymph and would have to go back to the lake from which she came. Her great desire to stay on land fails to be explored properly because of how quickly she meets Christoph. Any time Petzold tries to hint at this mystical plot point Undine loses itself.
Undine works best when it purely focuses on the aching romance between Undine and Christoph. The tension between Beer and Rogowski translates beautifully into the devoted love their characters have for each other. Yet Petzold’s insistence on adding the undine water nymph myth into his film does not work, especially for those who have no prior knowledge of water nymph characteristics. The fact that Undine is an undine feels shoehorned into the film for no good reason other than a nice parallel that Christoph happens to be a diver and Undine is from a lake. If Petzold had taken more time to articulate how undines function this story would have worked much better, unfortunately, Undine is too rushed, a murky romance that loses itself in unexplained mythology.
Undine screened as part of the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival.
VIFF Website: https://viff.org/Online/