LFF 2020 review: Undine
Things get very fishy for an industrial diver in this unusual love story from Christian Petzold
Written by Emma Simmonds
It’s not uncommon for German director Christian Petzold to have something surprising up his sleeve; he combines gritty or grounded settings with often quite outlandish ideas. Petzold’s last film, Transit, transposed a WWII story to the present day; its predecessor, Phoenix, involved a Holocaust survivor whose disappointing facial reconstruction renders her unrecognisable to her husband. His latest is a pretty fishy tale of love, death and urban planning.
Bagging lead Paula Beer the Best Actress prize at Berlinale 2020, Undine grabs you from the get-go. We see an intense woman in a trim leather jacket take the news that she’s been dumped very badly indeed, going so far as to threaten to kill the lover in question – Jacob Matschenz’s weasily Johannes – if he doesn’t reconsider, and behaving as if that would be an entirely reasonable response. Leaving him to ponder her proposition, Undine (Beer) exits to deliver a perfectly calm, composed, and really quite fascinating talk on the evolution of modern Berlin at her workplace across the way.
When she returns to the café, the scene of the suggested separation, Johannes has, understandably, legged it but a new romantic opportunity instantly presents itself in the shape of Franz Rogowski’s endearingly awkward industrial diver Christoph – perhaps Undine doesn’t have to kill her ex after all. The pair are thrown together in an audaciously bizarre scene when she saves him from a spontaneously shattering fish tank and they lie blissfully in the wet wreckage, to the fury of the café’s owner. But Undine isn’t the straightlaced, albeit occasionally murderous, historian she seems.
Undine is beautifully acted by charismatic, Joaquin Phoenix-alike Rogowski and a hypnotic and enjoyably confounding Beer (both of whom worked with Petzold on Transit) and there are many moments, not least those mentioned, where it’s so intriguing or charmingly odd that, for a time at least, it’s hard not to like. However, as this magical realist film wears on it feels frustratingly abbreviated and the elements which made for interesting contrasts begin to jar. With too little time devoted to its more fantastical, underwater ideas, these can feel tacked on, while even its love story lacks some oomph. It’s an interesting concept, insufficiently sold.
Undine shows at London Film Festival 2020 from 12th-15th October.
Director: Christian Petzold
Screenwriter: Christian Petzold
Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree
Running Time: 90min