A twisted fantasy-melodrama set in Berlin that, despite a strong start, never rises to its early promise.
“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.”
Paula Beer plays Undine, who issues this ominous warning to her cheating partner Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) when he attempts to break up with her. When he does leave, she soon succumbs to the clumsy charms of Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who attended one of her guided presentations in Berlin’s Stadtmuseum. Their relationship blossoms but Undine’s frequently erratic behaviour threatens this promising romance.
Christian Petzold’s follow-up to 2018’s Transit is a contemporary update on a German myth (itself based on a French folk tale) of a watery nymph who becomes human when she falls in love. However, if the object of her desires is unfaithful, they are both destined to die. It’s a story that has inspired Hans Christian Andersen, Walt Disney, Guillermo del Toro, and countless others who have a penchant for Ovid’s Metamorphosis or a soft spot for mermaid tales.
It begins brilliantly with a playfully deadpan opening, and manages to sustain a reigned in sense of fantasy-melodrama for most of its first half. Frustratingly though, the film never rises to its early promise and, as the runtime progresses, so does Petzold’s penchant for literal-mindedness. The director succumbs to puddle-deep symbolism in such a way that nothing is left unanswered or tantalizingly suggested, except for certain underdeveloped threads he weaves into the narrative about the urban development of Berlin across the 20th century. These elements feel tacked on and are never satisfyingly woven into the narrative. Combined with a heavy-handed approach to potentially potent themes and a predictable third act, these mounting slip-ups dilute emotional engagement despite Beer’s best efforts. Her performance, which earned her the Golden Bear for Best Actress at this year’s Berlinale – and outshines the ultimately underwhelming film as a whole – keeps things afloat, but we’ve come to expect more from Petzold.
Undine / Directed by Christian Petzold (Germany, 2020), with Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski. Starts July 02.