In the past few years, German auteur Christian Petzold’s masterworks brilliantly emerged the conflicts between personal and national interests while the characters were searching for their historical identity – from “Barbara” (East Germany in Cold War), “Phoenix” (the trauma from WWII), to “Transit” (the anxiety of facing the return of fascism).
His latest Berlinale competition “Undine”, on the surface, may disappoint his fans as it lightens the historical weight within, yet the film has a similar spirit. The heroine that shares the same name with the title (beautifully played by Paula Beer) is a historian who lectures about the past and future of Berlin’s urban landscape. The name Undine also comes from German romantic literature about a haunted siren-turned woman who will kill the unfaithful lover before she kills herself. Petzold takes this mythology to contemporary Berlin, opening the film in a cafe where Undine tells her cheated boyfriend: “If you leave, you have to die.”
Undine then meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski, Beer’s co-star in “Transit”), a professional diver who attends her lecture. Their first encounter ends up in a supernatural accident – the glass of the aquarium shatters, fishes jump out, and water flushes them away. Undine and Christoph fall on the ground, soaked, staring at each other’s eyes deeply and passionately.
As the lovebirds’ relationship starts to develop from that moment, “Undine” narrative begins to turn dark and twisted. He takes her diving to his underwater secret place. Excellently crafted by Petzold’s trademarked editing and visual style, the sequence is magical and mesmerizing. From there, the erotic thrilling romance surprises us with several unrealistic turns and forces.
Even so, “Undine” still keeps its strong sense of Berlin’s past, present, and future. Compare to his recent historical drama, Petzold might lose some powers in the modern set “Undine”, but there’s an unspoken feeling throughout the film. All you need to do is to dive in like Undine and discover the treasure deep under the surface. You will be rewarded, that I promise.
- Distributor: IFC Films
- Production: Schramm Film
- Director: Christian Petzold
- Writer: Christian Petzold
- Producer: Florian Koerner von Gustorf
- Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz, and Anne Ratte-Polle
- “Undine” premiered at Berlin International Film Festival 2020
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