FILM REVIEW: Undine -The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Christian Petzold

Love me or die is an intimidating proposition, but one that protagonist Undine puts to Johannes in a quiet café in the first minutes of Christian Petzold’s new film. At this point you may be expecting a torrid psychodrama but Undine herself and the film that follows, with its touches of fantasy, is nowhere near as conventional as its opening frame suggests.

Abandoned by her lover, tour guide Undine fatefully meets industrial diver Christoph that same day when a fish tank breaks over them. From there, a water-based affair begins as the couple fall passionately in love. But just as the heroine settles into this new happiness, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) returns to rekindle their relationship and a terrible accident throws everything into confusion.

Petzold’s film, showing in the Love strand of the London Film Festival, is on the surface a traditional boy meets girl story and although its stranger elements begin to make themselves known about an hour into the movie, Petzold has threaded subtle hints through the narrative and visual effects from the start, referencing water in dripping taps and the gurgling fish tank.

Filmed in an entirely naturalistic if romantic style, it takes some time before the audience learns whether Undine will make good on that intense opening ultimatum and, while a rather melodramatic beginning, it is the tender relationship with Christoph that is the focus as Petzold follows the couple on trains and walks as they become entwined and fully in tune with one another.

A surprising third act twist takes the film in another direction and a couple of years on, the audience realises that Undine may not be who we thought she was and while Petzold never firmly makes a case either way, the viewer is left to determine whether this is an outcome shaped by grief or something more fantastical.

There is, however, an unexpected and not entirely relevant focus on town planning, as Undine is shown giving lengthy lectures on Berlin’s history to tourists visiting city models looking at the effects of reunification on the architecture of the city. Clearly a source of some fascination to Petzold, what this contributes to the film and our understanding of character is slightly fuzzier.

Paula Beer is a likeable Undine, a woman scorned in the very first scene but unwilling to be the victim of her ex-lover’s whims. She is also a professional so despite her heartbreak, Beer shows Undine performing her role at the museum with a practiced skill, while the intensity of her feelings for Christoph are well conveyed.

Franz Rogowski’s Christoph makes for an equally likeable lead whose underwater role gives Petzold the opportunity for some interesting submerged sequences at the bottom of a lake. Rogowski and Beer develop a strong chemistry which makes the strange ending entirely fitting and Rogowski allows either interpretation of the conclusion to be elicited from his performance.

Everything outside the central relationship is less solid so while Undine doesn’t quite hold together as it veers between rom-com, suspense drama and fantasy flick, Petzold’s attempt to offer something a bit different is to be admired, but it leaves Undine a little adrift and you’ll wish the filmmaker had gone even further.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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