Berlinale 2020: Christian Petzold's Sweet, Simple Love Story 'Undine'
by Alex Billington
March 3, 2020
"'She is an enchantress!' cried Bertalda; 'a witch, that has intercourse with evil spirits. She acknowledges it herself.'" We can always trust in German filmmaker Christian Petzold to make an interesting film no matter what. Undine is his latest feature film, following his acclaimed film Transit from two years ago. It is indeed based on the classic fairy tale of the same name, originally a German novella written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in the early 1800s. The story is about a water spirit named Undine, who marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul. The classic romance has been updated in modern times (see: Colin Farrell in Ondine) about a water spirit who must return to the water at some point in her life, usually related to being in love. And in Christian Petzold's Undine, her story also involves a great deal of romance.
Set in modern day Berlin, Petzold's Undine stars talented German actress Paula Beer as "Undine Wibeau". The film opens with her boyfriend breaking up with her at a cafe just before she heads to work. She is sad and frustrated and upset, and demands he stay there until she gets a break. When she returns, she cannot find him, but after venturing inside the restaurant fate causes her to bump into another man - Christoph played by Petzold regular Franz Rogowski. The two begin dating, and fall in love quickly, though lingering feelings for her ex-boyfriend float back to the surface after some time. The obvious coincidence of characters is that Christoph is an industrial diver, working underwater; she is, of course, the water spirit (or sprite?) but now lives on land. The bond between these two is strong, but it will be tested, as love is a powerful force.
The key to enjoying Petzold's Undine is to not expect anything too elaborate or complex. It's a sweet, little love story. A Berlin romance with just a sprinkle of the classic fairy tale. If you're expecting something much more grand or elegant or intricate (like many of Petzold's other films), this isn't it. It's a much more refined and minimal film. Which isn't to say it's bad, far from it. Undine lacks depth in certain areas, mainly in the commentary on Berlin and letting go of the past, and in the establishment of the central love story. But the chemistry between Rogowski and Beer is pleasant and believable, which matters the most in a romance film anyway. Beer is the highlight - she's ravishing in this (she did win the Silver Bear award at Berlinale). Her emotions are so deeply felt. She carries the whole film, offering the most depth if you dive below the surface.
In addition to being a understated love story, the film also attempts to discuss the way Berlin, as a city, is struggling to move on from its past. I think there's some subtext and ideas buried in this film that will begin to reveal themselves with more time and thought, and I always appreciate the films that stick with you well after the first screening. That said, there aren't enough worthwhile scenes spent exploring this theme. And the few scenes we do get come across as stale recitations (because they literally are) rather than powerful condemnations. Nonetheless, it's still an enjoyable and heartrending film beyond the commentary. There's moments of connection between the two that can spark a fire in your own heart, if you let the film speak to you the way Undine speaks to Christoph. And we already know that the power of love can change the world.