Review: Undine

Written and directed by Christian Petzold, Undine (Paula Beer) works as a historian lecturing on Berlin’s urban development, but when the man she loves leaves her, the ancient myth catches up with her. Undine has to kill the man who betrays her and return to the water. Also starring: Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz and Anne Ratte-Polle.

It’s likely you’ll be unprepared for the fact that when this film says it’s following a historian, that you’re actually going to get a number of architectural lectures and what you’ll expect even less is enjoying them but Paula Beer has such a beguiling presence that they’re genuinely interesting. Beer brings an intriguing air immediately with a calmness to her character, she’s understandably upset after her boyfriend breaks up with her but she retains such control and almost a disassociation, that it’s hard not to want to know more about her. Her performance creates the centre of this film without taking the entire focus, she’s an anchor with which the other characters can float around. Undine is mysterious, mesmerizing and a surprisingly powerful character, she may be vulnerable but at the same time she’s steadfast, it’s a wonderful combination that makes her unique yet relatable and consistently intriguing throughout.

When Christoph (Rogowski) appears on the scene, it may not be love at first sight but minutes later the two of them share a moment that’s a rather odd meet-cute style scene that’s incredibly layered but also sweet. As the two of them then embark on an intense relationship filled with train station PDAs, they have a fantastic chemistry, they’re extremely charming to watch. Undine has such an impactful presence on Christoph that it calls for a very bubbling energy from Rogowski which he delivers in spades and when things turn to a more emotional state, his performance only gets better. Matschenz’s Johannes may have a smaller part to play in this story but you can judge his performance solely on how irritating and pathetic he makes this character, creating that detest helps to fuel the film forward.

Visually the film is entrancing, it really embraces the mystical quality to the story and almost has a style similar to 60s cinema. With water playing such a large part in the story, the direction does a brilliant job of capturing it, its underwater scenes are particularly mesmerising, they have a wonderful stillness and texture to them. Petzold’s direction feels romantic, dramatic and ethereal, and the cinematography is superb, visually the film is impeccable. The problems arise when delving into the story progression and writing, the film initially has such a lovely smooth yet slightly strange tone to it that’s captivating to watch but once it enters its latter half there comes a jarring, dramatic change which alters its tone entirely. From then on it does itself a disservice, this wonderfully unusual, mystical story becomes much less graceful and increasingly heavy handed, as its mystery reveals itself it does so overtly, undermining the more subtle tones it had previously built. It’s disappointing to see a film build so well only to stumble before the finish line.

Undine is mesmerising, enchanting and romantic, Paula Beer effortlessly creates a wonderfully complex character with an unusual yet effective charm. The chemistry that she has with Rogowski’s Christoph is intensely charming and even makes you forgive them for their repeated make-out sessions on train platforms. The story is very well written for the most part which makes it all the more disappointing when it takes a turn for the melodramatic and ends it journey on an unsatisfying note. Despite that, it’s more than worth watching for the visual treasures and great performances that it has to offer.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½

Selected as part of London Film Festival’s ‘Love’ strand

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