So, an Undine. It’s a mythical water nymph, mentioned by Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician, but you won’t learn that directly from Christian Petzold’s latest drama, an increasingly bizarre and dislocated story of love suffused with magical realist moments that make no sense at all… unless you realise that the titular Undine (Paula Beer) is a version of the mythical creature who fell in love with a human.
This Undine is a pencil-skirted guide to historical Berlin. She’s fresh out of a relationship with a guy she thought was the one, now propelled by fate into another one when a fish tank explodes and she and a man she’s just met (Franz Rogowski) are deluged by its contents. A watery meet-cute. He’s an industrial diver working as a welder on one of Berlin’s bridges. More water.
If you don’t know that Undine is a water nymph, what you get for your money for the rest of the film is an intense love story – Undine and Christoph – which is supercharged at the point where ex-boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) arrives back on the scene and things move from lovey-dovey to dramatically shocking at some speed. Water is always in the picture, sometimes malign, sometimes benign.
It’s a very European film, cool, character driven, with Bach on the soundtrack and Berlin looking like its reputation suggests – efficient and artisanal. Though it’s quite a chunky role for Rogowski as the new boyfriend (Matschenz is very good as the old one but he’s window dressing), it’s another example of a film carried entirely by Beer, only 25 but already a veteran, having anchored Frantz for François Ozon and Transit for Petzold and co-starred in Never Look Away by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. She was also the lead in the fascinating if increasingly preposterous TV series Bad Banks, a story about bankers being really bad.
Nina Hoss used to be the go-to for Petzold (they have made four films together) but Beer is a good replacement. She’s not only got that way of holding the camera but also a loose natural style that never seems self-conscious. She’s also very attractive – which helps and is also a talent.
Rogowski and support player Maryam Zee, as one of Christoph’s colleagues, also belong to what might loosely be called Petzold’s current repertory company – Beer, Zee and Rogoski (sounds like an upmarket law firm) all feature in Transit.
For Petzold, it’s a return to the films with a supernatural flavour, like Gespenster and Yella, that he used to make before he became more fascinated with conflicts of identity. Though you wouldn’t describe any of his films as exactly realistic – it’s either the supernatural or breathtaking coincidences that disbar them – Petzold always operates in a believeable and self-contained environment. We know where we are.
The giant catfish that swims through the murky waters of the River Spee at one point could be a metaphor for his films – here comes the weird stuff, sliding towards us like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Along with ability to conjure place and time and his skill at getting relaxed performances out of his actors, it’s what makes his films so watchable. If Undine is perhaps not quite up there in terms of power and arthouse spookiness with Yella (a personal favourite), its hypnotic quality makes it worth including in a list of films definitely worth catching.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020