Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Christian Petzold
Writer: Christian Petzold
Stars: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz
By Calum Cooper
“Undine” (2020) is a puzzling wee film. Brought to us from the director of “Transit” (2018) it is a film that has a lot going for it, be it its tone, themes and central characters. It certainly has a plethora of skill to its craftsmanship, but I don’t know if it entirely meshes together. Upon my own viewing of the picture, I personally found enough decent ideas in it to enjoy it, and I would still call it an ambitious project. But it doesn’t hold up as well on reflection.
Paula Beer is Undine Wibeau, an urban development historian based in Berlin. Her boyfriend Johansses (Jacob Matschenz) stands her up at a cafe, leaving Undine understandably angry and upset. This early scene however suggests that she is restraining her anger, and that she is capable of much more. But this unfortunate circumstance allows her to meet Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a scuba diver who was present for Undine’s most recent lecture. A relationship builds between the two, with both becoming fascinated with each other’s work. But a chance re-encounter with Johansses threatens to uproot Undine’s new life.
“Undine” (2020) is a puzzling wee film…It certainly has a plethora of skill to its craftsmanship, but I don’t know if it entirely meshes together.”
For those unfamiliar, the name Undine references elemental properties surrounding water. In fact, the name Undine was even used for a water spirit from a German fantasy novella of the same name. Therefore it is little wonder that the Undine of this film becomes so entranced by Christoph’s line of work as a diver. The film even has a fairytale-esque quality to its craft, particularly from its lingering shots, musical score, and general visual appeal.
There’s an interesting blend of urban and rural setting going on in Undine too, with Undine’s very job being a historian who details Berlin’s urban development. This includes the buildings that were destroyed, built or rebuilt from the Second World War onwards. The city is constantly changing, as is Undine’s love life. Combined with director Christian Petzold’s fairytale inspired approach, and I think Undine offers an interesting look at how the past clings to us, particularly with how Undine finds herself attracted to the body of water Christoph works in as well as her conflicted feelings once Johansses reappears in her life. Seeing as Berlin is a city that has been reshaped and redefined multiple times in a relatively short amount of time, it serves as an appropriate backdrop to this theme. Petzold certainly captures the city in a seemingly mystical light during this process.
“Undine” is a film of mixed results. Its craft, direction, and performances are undeniably impressive, as is its mystical tone. But it feels as though all this skill is being applied to a story that, overall, does not hold as much substance as it seems to think so.”
However, where the film falters is in its narrative. As attractive as the film’s fantastical angle is, the plot is pretty bare bones. Much of it is taken up by Undine and Christoph being intimate, with many of their activities, be it meeting a giant catfish or spilling wine in Undine’s flat, feeling disjointed and slight. Perhaps this says more about my reviewing abilities than it does about the film, for it is made considerably well, but the story feels a little meandering. By the time we get to the last third, and the mysticism is traded in for something more mysterious, we’re unsure what the point of everything is, even if it does look nice. Once the third act concluded I found myself unsure if the film was multi-interpretive or if its implied twist even worked.
Luckily, what keeps “Undine” afloat are the central performances, both of which are very good. Both Beer and Rogowski starred in “Transit” too, and they lend a lot of gravitas to an otherwise skeletal story. The two have a lot of chemistry together, bringing sensual charm to the scenes the characters spend together. While, individually, the two, Beer in particular, showcase an extra edge of subtle danger, as if one wrong move could change the entire tone of the story. The two of them are great to watch, and while the film’s ambiguous nature proves as frustrating as it is engaging, these performances are a very strong consistent.
Overall, “Undine” is a film of mixed results. Its craft, direction, and performances are undeniably impressive, as is its mystical tone. But it feels as though all this skill is being applied to a story that, overall, does not hold as much substance as it seems to think so. That being said, I am of the belief that it has just enough visual appeal and thematic intrigue to be worth at least one viewing. I suppose, all things considered, I would rather have a film that tries something different and doesn’t quite succeed than something safe and bog standard.