A Myth for the Modern World: Undine (2020) - Reviewed

Courtesy of IFC Films

Ever since appearing in the fourteenth century alchemical writings of Paraclesus, undines have been the inspiration for stories from Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s novel Undine to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The term is broad and covers many species including nymphs, nereides, limnads, naiades and mermaids. These mythical human-like water beings are said to lack a soul and can only acquire one by marrying a human. However, if an undine's husband ever deceives her, he has to die. 

The first and latest film in director Christian Petzold’s recently announced elements trilogy, Undine (2020) is a modern take on this watery myth. The film opens with a tight shot of Undine (Paula Beer) seated at an outdoor café with a grim expression on her face. Across the table is her now ex-boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) telling Undine why he wants to end their relationship. She responds by explaining that to leave her means he has to die. On the surface this seems like a threat. However, her expression coupled with Johannes’ response as to the ridiculousness of the statement suggests this consequence is outside of Undine’s control. She tells him she has to get back to work, but to wait for her at the café. When she returns, Johannes will abandon his plans to leave and reaffirm his love for her. Undine comes back to find an absent Johannes but before her devastation can consume the moment, the café’s fish tank bursts thrusting her into a dramatic introduction to a smitten Christoff (Franz Rogowski).

Courtesy of IFC Films

Although this opening scene draws heavily from Fouque’s story, the majority of Undine is grown from a more modern interpretation of the myth. In an interview with NYFF Director of Programming Dennis Lim, Petzold said inspiration for the film came from writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s book Undine geht, in which the traditionally male fantasy is told through the eyes of its subject. Quoting Bachmann, Petzold describes the motivation of his protagonist as, “I don’t want to be the desire of men or the identity of men’s desire anymore. I want to be my own.” So begins a romance of Undine’s own choosing, maybe for the first time. With Christoff’s sweet and earnest nature, viewers are compelled to root for the couple. Their chemistry is electric and dripping in loving desire. However, this affair is not without consequence, as Undine’s contract with Johannes comes back to haunt her.

Courtesy of IFC Films

While the audience is lead through this story and engages with Undine’s gaze, we are shown a contemporary world void of spaces traditionally reserved for myth. The name of city that serves as the film's setting, Berlin, means both swamp and river rake, or a scaffold of beams built over a river. Modern day Berlin resembles a metropolitan river rake built on a now dried swamp. As a result, Undine is forced to out of the myth and into modern society where she must work in order to survive. Her job as a historian and lecturer on urban development provides a counterbalance to the mysterious nature of the film's protagonist, while also a fitting career for such a creature. The tension between fantasy and reality enhances Undine’s puzzling character and grounds the film from flying off into ridiculous territory. The theme of history lost also plays a central role, as Undine takes great care to showcase multiple architectural features of Berlin.

Romance films can be difficult to pull off and have to walk a fine line in order to prevent them from becoming a sappy, soap opera story. Christian Petzold’s Undine does this with great success. This disenchanted fairy tale pairs well with its setting in modern day Berlin. Paula Beer’s mystifyingly reserved performance matched with Franz Rogowski’s eager passion encapsulates the melancholic magic of the film. Undine’s refusal to define the myth leaves many of the film’s elements up for interpretation allowing the audience to dwell a little in their own imaginations. A poignant reminder of a magical world now lost, Undine is sure to fill any viewer with painful joy. 

-Dawn Stronski