Saturday, June 19, 2021

Undine: Dangerous Liaisons in Berlin

By José Alberto Hermosillo

Undine” is an evocative, poetic, and subtly haunting masterwork from accomplished German director Christian Petzold. His latest piece fluctuates flawlessly between romance, thriller, and fantasy. 

The intricate plot submerges the characters’ lives in a rare aquatic world where they evolve into something they do not want to be, internally speaking.

After a difficult breakup, Undine (Paula Beer: “Barbara,” “Frantz,” “Dark Valley,” “Never Look Away”) and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz, “Berlin Babylon” series) never hear from each other again.

Undine still courtesy of IFC Films

Undine enters into an obsessive state of mind. She works as a historian at Berlin’s Urban Development Museum. When she goes to do a lecture, she hopes her ex-lover will remain at the café until she finishes. Otherwise, she will do something regrettable. Nevertheless, her profession gives her confidence. Moreover, her knowledge of Berlin’s history and architectural design surrounding the Spree River is meaningful to the story.

Undine still courtesy of IFC Films

When Undine comes back, she cannot find Johannes. Instead, she encounters Christoph, played by Franz Rogowski (“Transit,” “Victoria,” and “A Hidden Life”). Undine and Christoph meet in one of cinema history’s most bizarre first happenstances.

Undine still courtesy of IFC Films

The characters’ emotions complement the camera work perfectly. 

Paula Beer is pure energy and joy on the screen. She won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress for her remarkable performance as Undine. Franz Rogowski’s realization is tremendous. The prodigious young actor gives his best in every project. Apart from winning at the Berlinale, the film won seven international awards, including Best Actress at the European Film Awards, Montclair, and Seville. 

Undine still courtesy of IFC Films

Inspired by the novel “Moscow Diary” by German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, director Christian Petzold (Barbara, Transit) took two years to write “Undine’s” script. 

However, first, he had to transcribe Moscow’s outlook on Berlin – unfolding the novel’s legend in three different periods of the city’s history and using three specific points of Berlin’s architectural design. He also had to change the perspective from the male to the female point-of-view to make the film structure cohesive and the original poetry more effective.  

Christian Petzold, German director, "Undine." Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo
Christian Petzold, German director, "Undine." Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo

Petzold designed his cinema trilogy based on elements of nature, starting with “Phoenix,” which is Earth. “Undine” is water. And his next project, “The Lucky Ones,” will be fire - starting production in May 2022

Petzold manages the cinematic language to perfection, integrating the knowledge of the city into the fantasy of the story. His previous film, “Transit,” is obsessive, and the characters are more histrionic. “Undine” is more fluid and ethereal, like water’s main ingredient.

The director likes to work building structures, literally speaking. He regrets that Germany does not have a consistent film industry, a movie studio, or the machinery to produce movies like in Hollywood. However, his prolific body of work speaks for itself.  

Undine still courtesy of IFC Films

“Undine” reminds us of other recent European extraordinary romances on the big screen, such as Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” and the Belgian production “The Broken Circle Breakdown” by Felix van Groeningen. Other transcendental romances are the classic Arthur Hiller’s “Love Story” or Claude Lelouch’s Oscar-winning film, “A Man and a Woman.”

“Undine” has a proper flow, and it is emotionally even. Its structure has twists and turns, taking us to places with unpredictable situations.

According to the myth, Undine is the betrayed woman of the waters – who lives in a lake in the forest.

The spirit in the water is a referral point that connects all the liquid symbols - the fish tank, the scuba diver, the river, the lake, the rain, the swimming pool, the city, the burning pain, and the love, that dissipates as a fluid.  

In “Undine,” the romance overtakes the myth because, without love, we are empty.

UNDINE Official Trailer

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  1. Replies
    1. In the legend, she is. In the film, she is not exactly betrayed. You have to watch the film and find out.

  2. It's nostalgia: learning that past events that didn't seem happy were, in fact, happy. Movies teach us that.