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October 31, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Undine


Christian Petzold - 2020
IFC Films

Undine is inspired by the myth of the undine, a female creature who might resemble a human but lacks a soul. If the human man she loves is unfaithful to her, he dies. Unlike the previous films by Christian Petzold, his newest film is not a loose adaptation from a novel or film, but is taken from the essence of the legend and refashioned as a story taking place in contemporary Berlin.

Berlin provides a counter-story of a city that was divided after World War II, with a sometimes difficult reunification in 1990 following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Petzold's Undine is a historian who provides lectures on the architectural history of Berlin in a special museum for those interested in urban planning. Following the break-up with Johannes, Undine becomes involved with Christoph, an industrial diver who repairs underwater structures.

Undine and Christoph's relationship begins as a literal accident, bumping into an aquarium that breaks apart leaving the two drench on the floor of a cafe. Inside the aquarium is a small toy deep sea diver. The image of the toy diver is repeated later in the film. There are also what appear to be otherworldly voices. Undine does not in any way announce itself as a fantasy film, but at the same time it is not entirely realistic.

In one of her lectures, Undine points out that Berlin was built on what use to be marshland. Water and legends also appear when Christoph comes out of the lake where he was doing underwater welding, reporting on seeing a two-meter long catfilsh known as "Old Gunther". Later, Christoph shows Undine her name found on an underwater arch. This precedes Undine losing parts of her underwater gear, almost drowning. The relationship between Undine and Christoph is punctuated by accidents and misunderstandings.

In an interview, Petzold stated, "For me, the film is a Berlin film. Because again I moved a story here that actually has its origin somewhere else. I liked the contrast: Berlin, the sober, faced with such a love story. I wanted to set up a fairy tale in this city to show that this fairy tale can break out brutally Protestant-Prussian sobriety."

The film stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, the two main actors in Petzold's Transit. For myself, Undine is more successful than the previous film, where I think the filmmaker's imagined updating worked against the realities of the source novel. Certainly, what I've learned from following Petzold's career since Yella (2007) is not to take what is seen entirely at face value, and that Petzold has a way of not tipping his hand until close to the very end.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 31, 2020 06:47 AM