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VIFF 2020 Review: Undine

Paula Beer plays a Modern-day undine in Christian Petzold’s latest film Undine.

Undine was the first live-action foreign-language film I saw at the VIFF. It’s a very unique story.

The film begins with a man names Johannes breaking up with his girlfriend. She is distraught and even says she’ll have to kill him. Her name is Undine Wibeau. Undine tries to go about her daily life as she works as a historian at the Berlin City Museum. There she shows people a model of the city and tells of the history of Berlin. Undine has a unique ability to focus in on places and areas. She has an area of the Spree River in focus.

At a remote area of the Spree River, a man named Christoph works in the water to weld or to search out treasures found in the ocean floor. That is his profession. Undine returns to the cafe where she and Johannes used to drink at. That’s where she meets Christoph for the first time. The conversation gets friendly, but an accident happens. The accident causes them to bump into the cafe’s fish tank, causing it to break and spill all over. Both Undine and Christoph fall to the floor in love. However the owner is furious and bans the two from the cafe forever.

Over time the relationship between Christoph and Undine grows. They even move in together. One time during his job, Christoph offers to show Undine what he’s seen. Undine goes down, but without the scuba gear and she later floats off. He senses something peculiar about her. His sense of peculiarity grows right during his job he comes across a sunken ship with the name Undine on it.

Even though the relationship between Undine and Christoph grows, Undine still can’t help but think of Johannes. It strikes her as she goes about her job but when she looks at a part in the module that resembles the location of the cafe, she gets the sense that Johannes is there. Even while she’s walking romantically with Christoph in a park, she noticed Johannes with his new girlfriend. She turns her head, but returns back to Christoph. However Christoph sensed something. It wasn’t just the turn of the head but the the change of her heartbeat. It infuriates him, but Undine confesses the truth. That it was her ex.

Heartbroken, Undine goes to the cafe where Johannes is. Despite the owner being infuriated by Undine’s presence, she meets with Johannes and says he wants her back. The next day, an emergency happens at Christoph’s job site. The oxygen has been cut from his scuba outfit and he’s removed from the river unconscious. Undine is distraught to learn the news. She goes over to the hospital to see Christoph, but there’s a woman by his bedside. Christoph is unconscious and comatose. The woman tells Undine he’s brain-dead and she unleashes her anger on her. Undine leaves, going to Johannes’ place later that night. Johannes is in the pool while his girlfriend goes in the house to get a drink. Undine enters the pool. While Johannes is happy to see her, Undine drowns him. The then leaves and walks into the Spree River naked.

Two years pass. Christoph is alive and well. He recovered from his coma. The woman from the hospital, Monika, is his girlfriend and they are expecting their first child together. However Christoph is sensing something back to the Spree River. He returns one night alone, and there he sees her: Undine. She is alive and well and she belongs in the water. It becomes clear who is truly in Christoph’s heart.

One thing about this film is that it gets into the myth of the undine. For those who don’t know, the undine is a lot like the mermaid most us are familiar with. However the mermaid is just one of the images of the undine. The mythical undine is a lot darker than the mermaid who wants to please the man she meets. In fact one aspect of the undine is if the man is unfaithful to her, he is doomed to die.

What this film does is try to get to the common image of the undine in both its positive qualities and its negative qualities too. In a sense, the film is more of a reminder of the undine myth. The film also tries to set the myth of the undine in the modern world. In modern-day Berlin to be exact. Undine Wibeau is the undine in the modern world who lives along the humans, but gets to the true sense of who she is when she’s in the water.

One unique thing about the film is how they use Berlin as part of the telling of the story. Undine works as a historian with an urban development team. She knows a lot of Berlin’s history form centuries back to the days of division with the Berlin was to the present and its developments. The history also provides clues to Undine’s own past and own identity. One would be surprised how a story of an undine in modern Berlin would come to be.

This is another good film by Christian Petzold. Petzold has become one of Germany’s most heralded directors in recent years with films like Barbara, Jerichow and Phoenix. Here he delivers another good film. It’s very well-done, but it does have its flaws. The energy level does seem to get lost somewhere near the end. Nevertheless it is mostly well-written and well-acted. Paula Beer is also excellent as the mythical Undine. Her role may have lacked dimension, but she was very good in capturing the mythical figure of the undine well. The two leading men, Franz Rogowski and Jacob Matschenz, were good in their roles, but I felt their roles were underdeveloped. Hans Fromm did an excellent job with delivering the cinematography for the film.

Undine has done quite well on the film festival circuit. At the Berlin Film Festival in won the FIPRESI Prize and was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film. Beer herself won the Silver Bear Prize at that Festival for Best Actress. It’s also been a nominee for Best Film at the Denver Film Festival, Beijing Film Festival, Seville European Film Festival and a Best Narrative nominee at the Montclair Film Festival.

Undine is a good attempt at telling a modern-day story of the undine myth. It doesn’t keep the energy or the vibe consistent throughout the film, but it is picturesque and has a good sense of the characters.