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‘Undine review: Dir. Christian Petzold (2020) [LFF]

The film had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale.

Paula Beer stars in the role that saw her win the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, bringing an old German romance to life in the dressings  of a modern day mystery. 

Taking its name from an old German folk tale, the original story of Undine follows a water spirit who marries a knight in order to gain a soul. Christian Petzold brings that tale to modern day Berlin, creating a story where all is not quite what it seems. While romance remains an important component of this retelling, it is more the sense of the uncanny and hints of a stranger world that drives this contemporary telling of a much explored text. 

Undine (Beer) works in the city of Berlin as a tour guide focused around the city’s long history of architecture. Her boyfriend has just dumped her, and when she’s at her lowest ebb, she meets the inquisitive Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a diver who can’t help but find the striking Undine fascinating. As the two develop a relationship, Christoph soon comes to realise that there’s more to Undine than meets the eye. 

This telling of Undine is one that uses its audience’s knowledge of folklore to tease out fragments of the supernatural, only occasionally giving into more direct fantastical elements. What it ends up being is a bit of an odd catfish tale, one which doesn’t ever fully commit to either its thriller elements, its love story or its magical origins. It is a relationship drama that deliberately plays everything in a manner which is a bit distant, aiming to make Undine as alluring to us as she is to Christoph. The film itself may seem like it is holding back at a number of turns, never quite committing one way or the other, but it is certainly successful at making Undine an alluring figure. 

Beer is a captivating screen presence, beautiful and incredibly hard to read. There are many extended scenes where she is just simply giving a lecture on the history of Berlin, and I can quite honestly say I would have been very happy to have watched an entire movie focused around these moments. It is hard to quite put your finger on just what makes Beer so enthralling to watch, but it works wonderfully for the film to have such an enigmatic lead keeping the whole thing intriguing. That the film itself can’t match up to the energy its lead actress is bringing to the table says more for the ace in the hole that is Beer than it does the storytelling’s shortcomings. 

Where we end up by the climax of Undine is a place that doesn’t come across as particularly satisfying, with the sense that the crescendo it is building towards never actually blasts out in full fortissimo. It seems quite content to deliver an experience that’s odd, but one which forges a sense of mystery that feels as though it never had much of a secret to hide to begin with. There’s clear talent involved. The film looks wonderful, and it clearly loves Berlin, giving a portrait of a city that clearly understands the weight of the history that its streets carry around every corner. It simply doesn’t seem to have much under the lid, once you open it up and take a peak. What it does have going for it is a lead performance that proves hard to ignore, one which keeps you chasing the bait in the hope that something unique is going to be on the other end of the line. 

Undine

Andrew Gaudion

Film

Summary

Beer is a captivating screen presence, and is outstanding here, but the film as a whole doesn’t have much under the lid, once you open it up and take a peak.

3

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