If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you

Undine ( 2020 )

  |   March 7, 2020

The Swiss physician Paracelsus believed that each of the four elements was inhabited by an elemental spirit. For water, that would be the Undine. As later legend would have it, particularly the novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué , they resemble humans, but possess no human soul, acquiring one by marrying a man. Should then the man be unfaithful, he is fated to die. Director Christian Petzold takes the tale and transfers it to modern day Berlin, in the first of a trilogy of planned movies about German romanticism, and the heroine of his tale is Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer), a historian lecturing in the urban development of Berlin.

The movie opens with Undine meeting her boyfriend Johannes in their usual cafe across from Berlin City Museum. He clumsily announces to her that he wishes to break up, and she doesn't take the news well, reminding him of his past promises and threatening to kill him if he doesn't remain at the cafe until she can return from work to further discuss things. When he is, as expected, nowhere to be found, she encounters Christoph (Rogowski), who had just heard her speak, and after a bonding incident involving a cracked fish tank, they embark on a whirlwind romance filled with fervour and passion. Probably unsurprisingly, the movie is awash with the imagery of the water, which, whether they know it or not, is what binds them both. Franz is a deep sea diver, and takes Undine to see her name inscribed on a monument in the bottom of the ocean. Little is he to know there is more to it than mere coincidence. Tragedy eventually befalls the star crossed lovers, and it's then that it seems the ancient myth catches up with Undine. As we move toward the film's climax, the hints of the supernatural peppered through the early stages give way to an avalanche.

Petzold crafts a world full of colour, and deftly balances the modern with the mystic in typical style. Paula Beer shines in the eponymous role, as a character who is both vulnerable and fierce, earning her the best actress award at the 70th Berlinale. However, what Undine lacks is depth. For all the strong performances and artistic direction, it's a standard fairytale romance, and simply recounts the myth in a modern setting. In the end, what is a solid movie never feels quite adventurous enough to achieve a deeper resonance with its audience.