Undine! thou fair and lovely sprite. And so on.
A fairy tale gets a modern retelling in Undine, a symbol-laden love story from German director Christian Petzold (Phoenix; Transit).
The 19th century Undine (by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque) was a water nymph who marries a human to get a soul; there are strings attached, however, and her husband must not be unfaithful to her.
It’s the same territory as Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, or any other dark fable prior to being Disneyfied.
Our modern-day Undine (Paula Beer) is a free-lance historian in Berlin. The story begins with a breakup, as her love of three years tells her it’s over.
“You said you’d love me forever,” Undine says to Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) who has just told her he loves someone else.
“If you leave me I’ll have to kill you,” she reminds him, which is either contemporary hyperbole or fairy tale talk.
Guess we’ll find out.
Johannes does not show up where the two are supposed to meet. Instead, Undine encounters a diver, Christophe (Franz Rogowski) and a new romance begins.
Cue the water symbols. From actual diving adventures to exploding fish tanks, bridges, canals and swimming pools, Undine is water-laden and romantic, moving between real and surreal with a certain ease.
The relationship between Undine and Christophe is complicated, because she is not really free — there’s all that unfinished business with Johannes. Golly, women are so complicated.
The main tale in Undine feels a bit foamy, to borrow some of that sea lore, but there are interesting things swimming around just under the surface.
Undine’s work involves lectures on the city of Berlin and its physical and perhaps moral evolution; here on dry land the same tussle emerges between hard truths and fairy tales, not surprising given the filmmaker’s eye for national identity.
Undine won the FIPRESCI critics prize at Berlin Film Festival in 2020, where Beer also won the Silver Bear for Best Actress.