London Film Festival
Undine starts on an ominous note. “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” Undine (Paula Beer) says to the boyfriend (Jacob Matschenz) who is leaving her for another woman. Beer delivers the line without hysterics; she is merely stating a fact. But from there the film unfolds with pointed banality: Undine returns to her job as a historian, lecturing on the architecture in Berlin, lulling the viewer into a false sense of reality.
And yet Undine is based on the European myth of female water nymphs who are transformed into humans by the love of a man, only to be doomed to death if the man is unfaithful. It seems a bleak deal for the woman, and writer-director Christian Pertzold does give his Undine more of a chance for survival than her mythological counterparts.
He also poses the interesting question: could an undine stay on land once her lover has cheated on her, as long as she finds a new man to call in love with an hour later?
The new love interest is Christoph, played by Franz Rogowski as a devastatingly earnest man with his own passion for water (he’s an underwater diver). His courtship of Undine is sincere and a little dull to watch, but soon enough they’re madly in love, with him listening eagerly to her architecture lectures and her accompanying him on a dive into a lake. There are hints of fantasy scattered throughout, but hardly enough to keep anyone on the edge of their seat.
That is until Undine and Christoph walk past Undine’s ex and Undine entirely neglects to tell Christoph about him for some reason. Christoph confronts her over the phone, later, having worked out something was up from the uptick in Undine’s heartbeat when they passed by the other man. From there, the film becomes more open about its mythological origins (although not by much) and is markedly more interesting for it. It’s just a shame that it takes so long to get there.
It was disappointing not to be captured by Undine, because it’s a gorgeous film (particularly the underwater sequences) and its lead performance is magnetic. But the chemistry between Beer and Rogowski is too understated to sell the concept that their love has magical properties, and the film is too stylish and slick to ever allow itself to be fun.
Simply put: it’s difficult to invest in the central relationship. Undine and Christoph are both thinly sketched as characters, reduced mostly to what they do for employment. Their scenes together are sensual and accompanied by beautiful piano music (Bach), but they feel empty. It’s a film that’s easy to appreciate, and less easy to love.
If you’re a lover of magical realism, you may well get swept up into the peculiar rhythms of Undine, appreciating its ebb and flow. But those of us with no particular feeling one way or the other about specific European folklore might just find it a little more difficult to get on board.