Water-based myths and folklore have long been mined for film, ranging from mainstream – Splash, Aquaman, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter (mainly Goblet of Fire) and the upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid to the tiny and independent – Evolution (France, 2015), 80s-mermaid-musical-horror The Lure (Poland, 2017, can’t recommend highly enough), Blue My Mind (Switzerland, 2017), The Isle (UK, 2018, which was a combination of the Greek siren myth and the Scottish folklore of selkies) and A Mermaid in Paris (France, 2020). Not to mention, of course, left-field Best Picture winner The Shape of Water (2017). The Undine/Ondine story comes from Paracelsus’ Book on Nymphs, published about 100 years after the author’s death in 1658. We’ve already had an Irish Ondine film in 2009, starring Colin Farrell, which went down the selkie route with the myth. Now, Christian Petzold’s Undine takes a less literal approach, with only subtle hints that there’s anything mythological happening at all.
In the last decade, German auteur Petzold has made two films starring the brilliant Nina Hoss (who has a film out this year with Lars Eidinger called My Little Sister – which I highly recommend) and Ronald Zehrfeld (who also appears in the sublimely great TV show Babylon Berlin) – the Cold War set Barbara (2012) and and the WWII-set Phoenix (2014). He’s also now made two films with Franz Rogowski and Paul Beer, the first of which was 2018’s Transit, set in what appears to be the near-future. Like in Undine, Transit is vague about something being “off” in this world – Petzold is threading political or folkloric allegories into his dramas with the lightest of touches. Both are set in modern day European cities, in our recognisable reality, but there is an intriguing twist to both tales. Rogowski and Beer are reunited (after their romance in Transit) in Undine – which features one of the funniest and most dramatic meet-cutes we’ve seen in years. Humour is an underappreciated aspect of Petzold’s work, but often crops up in unexpected moments or situations.
Undine (Beer) has been dumped, at a Berlin cafe, by her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) for another woman. She has just given a talk on the city’s history and architecture, attended by professional diver Christoph (Rogowski). He sees her at the cafe and awkwardly asks if she’d like to get to coffee with him, notices that she’s visibly upset, starts to back away and accidentally crashes into a chest which has a fish tank on top of it, which proceeds to f*cking explode all over them. Well, from this point, their fate is sealed.
One of the greatest strengths of Undine is Petzold’s leisurely pacing, with him being in no hurry to rush scenes that are important to the characters and also allowing us to see them both being good at their jobs. So, we get quite large sections of Undine’s (very interesting) Berlin talks in her professional setting and then when Christoph asks her to give one of her speeches late at night, just for him, it has more impact. There are many scenes set on trains or at train stations – they frequently have to part from one another, which really ups the romance and heartache. We see Christoph doing his job as well – as a diver who maintains underwater pipes, turbines etc – including an encounter with Big Gunter the Catfish. He takes Undine diving and she runs into trouble, leading to him having to perform CPR to Staying Alive, something that Undine clearly relishes.
To go into detail about how the myth is entwined into the story would be to spoil, but the final third veers into horror at times (Undine turning up in her ex-boyfriend’s pool), dabbles in the surreal and even starts to mess around with time. This is what sets the film apart and makes it enjoyable, but none of it would work if it wasn’t grounded by Rogowski and Beer’s performances. They absolutely sell the central romance, we believe in it and are invested in them – in both their separate careers and their relationship with each other.
While Undine may be considered more light-weight than Petzold’s more political work from this decade, it still has a lot to offer. It’s a reminder that we have to look outside of the US for good romantic and/or sexy films for grown ups these days (hello to Pablo Larrain’s Ema from last year) but they are out there, waiting to be discovered. It will also be interesting to see where Petzold goes in the next decade and which actors may be brought into his ‘company of players.’ Undine will keep you gripped until the end, wondering how things will play out for these two lovers and it doesn’t take the easy or obvious route, up to and including the very last seconds. A great romantic European drama (with a twist), centred around two compelling performances.
Undine is now available on Curzon Home Cinema in the UK