VOD film review: Undine
Beer and Rogowski8
Script and direction8
Nymphs and architecture8
Matthew Turner | On 02, Apr 2021
Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz
Where to watch Undine online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
German auteur Christian Petzold reunites the stars of his previous film Transit for this engaging fantasy romance based on the myth of the water nymph Undine. The legend goes that a water nymph can only become human if she marries, but if her husband is unfaithful then she’s doomed to kill him and return to her aquatic origins.
Given that the Undine myth isn’t as well known in the UK as it is in Germany, it might have been useful for a brief caption to include it before the film, although you pick up the gist quickly enough. The story begins with Berlin historian Undine (Paula Beer) being dumped by her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) at a cafe opposite the museum where she works, whereupon she calmly informs him that if he leaves her, she’ll have to kill him.
However, when she returns to the cafe after work, she has an unexpected encounter with industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who had followed her after being captivated by her architectural knowledge. The pair fall passionately in love and Undine begins to think she may have escaped her fate, but when Johannes reappears in Berlin, she feels the inexorable pull of destiny.
The past and the present rub up against each other in fascinating ways in Petzold’s films – Transit was effectively a WWII film set in the present day – and the same is true here, as illustrated by both the underwater ruins that bear Undine’s name and by the surprisingly in-depth architectural detail in her museum guide spiel, about the old and the new sharing space.
Intriguingly, the film keeps certain information hidden from the audience, specifically the depth of Undine’s feelings for both Christoph and Johannes. More to the point, you can tell she’s comparing the two in her head, but you’re never quite sure of her conclusions. To that end, both men are unsatisfactory in some way – Johannes with his infidelity, while Christoph seems to be a little on the needy side – as if the film is subtly asking whether true love is itself a myth.
The performances are extremely impressive, with Beer and Rogowski both conveying a wealth of emotional information through their facial expressions alone. The camera clearly adores Beer and the film is gorgeous to look at, courtesy of cinematographer Hans Fromm’s striking use of green and the way Beer’s red hair captures the light. The dreamy, mysterious atmosphere is heightened still further by the repeated use of a single piece of classical music (a Bach piano concerto) instead of a contemporary score.
In short, although the story of Undine may appear slight on the surface, it contains hidden depths, to the point where you’ll find yourself thinking about it for days afterwards. Here’s hoping Petzold, Beer and Rogowski collaborate on a third feature soon.
This review was originally republished during the 2020 London Film Festival.