German director Christian Petzold has teamed up again with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in his latest film, Undine, a romantic drama with fantasy undertones. Based on the Greek myth/German fairytale of the water nymph Undine who, after being betrayed by a lover, must kill him and return to her life underwater (even The Little Mermaid was loosely based on this), this 2021 version brings us to modern-day Berlin with our present-day nymph Undine (Paula Beer) who is a city historian who has just been left for another by her love Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). But Undine’s heartbreak doesn’t last too long, for shortly thereafter, she has a chance meeting with Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver, and falls head over heels for him, suppressing her curse.
The love and connection between Christoph and Undine is so innocent and all-consuming, almost to the point of smothering. Undine clearly yearns for and needs the love and affection of another. But as their relationship grows, Christoph starts to feel that Undine is hiding something and a tragic rift starts to grow between them, but their impossible love remains. At its heart, this version of Undine is a story about devotion and fighting for love — Undine is already a human and wants to stay that way, but the water and mythical curse continue to try and pull her under like a riptide. And having the film set in modern-day Berlin just adds even more to the mythological elements of the story as a city built out of swampland. Berlin is yet another character in the story as there is a lot of focus on the history and backstory of Berlin, its architecture, and urban planning.
The film opens with a tense scene in which the viewer slowly realizes that they are watching a breakup that foreshadows what lies ahead. But if you are unfamiliar with the myth behind the story, you’ll be caught off guard by the words spoke by Undine — you’ll think that they are just the words of a lover scorned who is talking out of emotion and frustration. You’ll be torn between whether this is someone dealing with mental illness or whether there is some fantastical story at play here. But these words set the foundation for the fairytale and the events to come.
Undine seems almost otherworldly — she is ethereal and seems somewhat detached from the world around her (there’s even a scene where she’s talking on her flip phone but looking at the phone like she’s FaceTiming or like its something almost foreign to her). Paula Beer plays this character effortlessly. She is emotional and consumed with love — obtaining it and keeping it. And her chemistry with the head-over-heels infatuated Christoph, played by Rogowski, is so raw and real. But Beer and Rogowski have been here before — in 2018, they played somewhat tragic lovers opposite each other in Transit, Petzold’s previous production.
In the end, Undine is not a perfect film — it’s quite a slow burn, bordering on yawn-inducing. There are lots of slow, weird lingering scenes that are almost a turnoff. There is a lot of little history lessons thrown in throughout the film. As a history geek, I appreciate it, but I can see how this would be enough to make the average viewer turn out. But it leaves you to think that maybe there is some connection hidden between the history of the city and the story unfolding before your eyes. Otherwise, why would all of this be in the film? There were even a couple of scenes in which I was left wondering what in the world was happening — you have to let this film sit and marinate to really understand how everything plays together.
On the other hand, there were a lot of things in Undine that kept this film afloat. Major props should be given to the sound department and the cinematographer (Hans Fromm). The underwater scenes were beautifully done — there was even a slight Shape of Water feel to the entire film, minus the borderline creepy amphibious creature. Overall, what seems to just be a simple relationship drama has so much more lurking underneath the water, but it has a hard time breaking through to the surface.