This film was previously reviewed in February 2020 as part of our Berlinale Festival coverage.

Anyone familiar with European folklore will have an idea of where Christian Petzold’s latest feature may end up. But as this modern fairy tale opens, Undine is not a water spirit – yet. She is a state historian giving talks on Berlin to tourists and dealing with a blindsiding breakup. Shortly after, she meets an industrial diver in a freak accident, and their fates become irrevocably entwined.

Even before the fantastical fully emerges, Paula Beer brings an ethereal quality to Undine. Hers is a mature, captivating performance that commands attention in the smallest moments. Crucially to this story, she is unafraid of giving into the grand emotions required of a timeless tragedy, yet never veers into melodrama. Her love interests Christoph (Franz Rogowski) and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) define themselves in physical and emotional opposition to each other, lending Undine’s choice to align the two in her story a desperate poetry. A modern love story this is not, and here, a traditional star-cross’d approach works.

The Berlin-set film enjoys the city’s eclectic topography, highlighted by rich-hued cinematography and a dreamlike piano score. It allows the plot’s more stagnant points to still hold viewers’ attention, though it does not wholly distract from uneven pacing. Unfortunately, the film feels reluctant to relish its magical realist moments. There are several points in the film where one expects Undine to dive headfirst into its mythological roots, but each time it prefers merely to dip its toes in. This creates an ambiguity in style and tone which holds attention but never fully satisfies.

Undine is let down by its lack of commitment to its most fantastical ideas, and its meandering pacing prevents it from reaching true greatness. That said, its gorgeously acted and stunningly framed love story marks this as a worthy update to the timeless tale.



CAST: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz, Anne Ratte-Polle

DIRECTOR: Christian Petzold

WRITER: Christian Petzold

SYNOPSIS: A state historian watches her world fall apart in two love affairs.