An undine is an elemental, ethereal being – a kind of water nymph. Legend states that the undine must kill her lover if he has the audacity to betray her. Got that? Good. Because it’s not outlined at all in director Christian Petzold’s flaky Undine. This modernised interpretation of the myth could simply be viewed as the tale of a codependent, overwrought young woman who takes a breakup very badly indeed.
Undine (Paula Beer) is first encountered gazing intensely at her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) as he unemotionally tells her that their relationship is over, only for her to reply that she will now have to kill him at some point. Stoic though fractured, Undine goes to work, and it’s like a switch has been flipped; she becomes an open and articulate young professional as she guides museum tours pertaining to Berlin’s urban development (which threaten to be more interesting than the film in which they appear). Later that same day, she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who might offer a chance of true love for this woman (who may also be a water nymph).
By deciding not to contextualise the mythical inspiration for the narrative and the fact that it has been transposed to contemporary Berlin, the parameters for the story come across as messily defined. Undine could be an introspective woman, living an almost transient existence in a setting where occurrences that could be classed as magical realism just… sort of happen. Beer is the film’s strongest point, and her performance is exquisitely restrained without being the slightest bit cold.
This is a piece of work that will undoubtedly polarise. Some might find it a beguiling and evocative cinematic experience, whereas others will be baffled – and probably more than a bit bored. Undine feels like a film that wants to be more than it is, but doesn’t quite know how.
Undine does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Undine here: