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Film Review: Undine

9 October 20 words: Daniel Turner

Daniel Turner reviews German-French drama Undine as part of our BFI London Film Festival coverage...

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski
Running time: 90 minutes

Following a film that by this point is or at least should be regarded as one of the finest cinematic achievements of the past decade, is a task no doubt fraught with difficulties. This however was the unenviable task facing German writer-director Christian Petzold after his astonishing 2018 film Transit.

Undine reunites Christian Petzold with the stars of that previous film Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, (both of whom once again deliver beautiful performances) for a lovers’ fable inspired by the aquatic myth of a water nymph who becomes human when she falls in love with a man, but is doomed to die if he is unfaithful to her.

The film opens with Paula Beer’s Undine being awkwardly and unceremoniously dumped; the manner of her response to this event leads us to believe that we may be heading toward a rather straightforward mythical adaptation. However, it is in Petzold’s balancing of mythology and psychology that the film's great strength lies. At various moments we are torn between diving head-first into the supernatural or accepting the plausible psychological explanations for all that Undine and Christoph experience.

The film excels in keeping you in a perpetual state of uncertainty; with each passing minute, you find yourself engulfed by the increasingly inescapable feeling that there is a great deal hidden beneath the surface of this film, these characters and the city in which they live.

Petzold’s film does a fantastic job of tip-toeing between the fantastical and the very real implications of personal trauma, the inescapable nature of our pasts and the power past relationships have not only to draw us back in but to affect our future. The parallels and metaphors abound and by refusing to concretely land his story on either side, Petzold allows the audience to draw their own conclusions - and the film is far better for it.

A film of exquisite craft and performance, whose depths I believe I’m still yet to fully fathom

Paula Beer is once again an effervescent and magnetic screen presence as the eponymous Undine, a historian guiding visitors through the architecture of Berlin’s past. Franz Rogowski is no less mesmerising as Christoph, an industrial diver who falls madly in love with her and whose innocent straight-forwardness slowly becomes something of a haunted melancholia. As in Transit their chemistry as performers is palpable and the sincerity of this melancholic love story would perhaps fall short in lesser actors’ hands.

Undine is something of an oddity, a film unlikely to receive the almost universal regard and praise that met its predecessor, and in many ways, it feels like a left turn for Petzold as a filmmaker. The preoccupations with investigating and confronting social, historical and personal pasts is still present, but this time it feels firmly rooted in the psychologies and actions of its two characters.

We learn a great deal about the city of Berlin and its past, yet paradoxically we learn little about the pasts of the city’s two residents upon whom the film focuses. We learn about them solely through their actions in the present and primarily through their interactions with each other. They float through the film both deeply alive, richly realised and yet simultaneously as avatars representing various aspects of Berlin's complex social and political history.

A film of exquisite craft and performance, whose depths I believe I’m still yet to fully fathom. Undine is a film unlike anything else you are likely to see this year, and one whose mysteries will no doubt live long in the memory. 

Undine screens at Broadway Cinema on Thursday 15 October and on BFI Player on Monday 12 October

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