REEL Review – Undine (2020)

Director: Christian Petzold | 1h 30mins | Drama, Horror | Language: German

Undine (Paula Beer) has her heartbroken when her boyfriend confesses being with another woman. When she finds a new love in Christoph (Franz Rogowski), the pain of her previous relationship starts to take it’s toll.

Undine is the latest film by celebrated German auteur Christian Petzold, an often emotionally complex Romance that laces a mythical fairytale throughout it’s narrative. The myth is that of a water elemental that finds love in the form of a German knight, and what’s particularly impressive about Petzold’s modern vision is that it nails the overbearing love that’s shared in all fairytale romance.

The start is a great set up that is delicately performed and shot. Undine and her boyfriend Johannes are sat at a cafe outside her work, sharing an uncomfortable silence and ice cold stares. Paula Beer’s held back tears and stoic presence are unusually well-balanced, jumping from heartbroken to then ending it with the cold line “If you leave, you have to die” (a part of the mythical background the film is running with). The power drifts from both characters beautifully, but it’s a shame the film couldn’t keep the same consistency.

The film is easy enough to understand, Undine’s emotional commitment towards Christoph becomes fragile with the known existence of Johannes. But it’s the movie’s mythical moments that become to hard to grasp, maybe it’s the deep-rooted supernatural tone flooding as much of the scenes as possible, but it feels more as if the modern romance is struggling to mesh with the folktale story coherently, making numerous scenes feel inane.

Beer nails every single emotion expected of her, she is the driving force behind the film’s ghostly style and the reason it doesn’t get too lost and disengaging.

In the aftermath of an accident Christoph emerges from a coma screaming Undine’s name. It’s almost as if the knowledge of her loneliness miraculously awakens him. It all feels a little melodramatic more than it does mythical, and maybe the modern mesh would have been better leaning more towards it’s grounded approach to the romance. Luckily for the film though, it has a leading performance that is fantastic.

Paula Beer’s performance is exactly what the film needs, icy cold in expression but emotionally complex when she needs to be. Balancing love, lust and obsession with subtle facial expressions even when submerged underwater. Whether she is reciting the history of Berlin’s buildings or engaging in a spiteful conversation with her ex, Beer nails every single emotion expected of her, she is the driving force behind the film’s ghostly style and the reason it doesn’t get too lost and disengaging.

The film’s score is reminiscent of the romances of the late 19th Century, accompanying the film for better and for worse. At it’s best it’s a soundtrack that creates atmosphere and gives the supernatural scenes personality, but at it’s worst it emphasising the romance in a tear-jerker level of tone, almost as if it’s parodying Love Story‘s (1970) iconic score. It’s at times beautiful, but, unfortunately, you have to take the good with the bad.

Undine is film that is more interesting than it is brilliant, and even though it’s mash-up of modern romantic complications and the fairytale myth doesn’t always translate, it’s saved by a central performance that anchors the films tone perfectly.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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