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Berlinale 2020: ‘Undine’ Treats Love as an Academic Exercise

The myth of Undine goes as follows: she is a water sprite made human, bolstered by the love of a man. But there’s a catch — if this man cheats on her, she will be doomed back to the water. It’s a bad idea for the guy too because she’ll have to kill him. You’ll probably know some iteration of the myth from The Little Mermaid, which follows a similar pattern. 

Our modern Undine works for The Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing, taking visitors on architectural tours of Berlin through models. She fluidly guides one through the history of the city from the Wilhelmine Period to the Nazis to the Cold War to post-reunification. We learn that Berlin — named after the West Slavic word for “river lake” — was built on a marsh as a waypoint between France and East Prussia, its growth into a fully-fledged metropolis something of an accident.

Nothing else in this film is an accident; purposefully plotted by Christian Petzold, we’re introduced to nervous, skittish Undine (Paula Beer) in media res having a domestic with Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) outside a Berlin café. Johannes is about to leave her for another woman, but Undine tells him to wait for her, otherwise, she will be forced to kill him. Thankfully, when she returns from her lecture, she meets the sweet, strange Christoph (Franz Rogowski). He’s a diving engineer, tasked with working on a dam. Together, they explore the depths of a lake, filmed near Wuppertal in West Germany. But other forces are at work in Undine’s life, threatening to unravel her existence completely. 

Doomed from the start, the failure of Berlin to fully integrate itself architecturally post-reunification — with East and West still distinctively clashing, and the middle of Berlin a wasteland of wide-open spaces and grotesque brutalism — is enmeshed with the failure of Undine to maintain a happy life. The city can’t move on from the failures of its past. Neither can she.

Nonetheless, when Berlin itself has 3,000 lakes, why does Undine take us to the other side of the country? Doesn’t this seem to undermine the central metaphor of Berlin as swampland? Why introduce us to a model of Berlin if the story barely takes place in the city of Berlin? Why not just set it all by the lake and ditch the metaphor entirely? I found myself asking questions such as these more than simply enjoying the story, making Petzold’s love tale an interesting experiment, but not much of romantic success.

In essence, it’s a classic Berliner Schule film, filled with pregnant pauses, strange metaphors, and left-field storytelling. While engaging from moment to moment, and excellently choreographed and shot by Petzold, Undine doesn’t seem to want to move us. While definitely more accessible than the similarly abrasive I Was At Home, But — and even finding moments of unexpected Bee Gee’s inspired comedy —it doesn’t hit home with any real force. I know Petzold thinks differently, but love shouldn’t really be seen as an academic exercise. 

Undine plays in Competition at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, which runs February 20th, 2020 – March 1, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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