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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - UNDINE

undine review
An industrial diver falls for a woman with a mysterious connection to water.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Christian Petzold

Starring: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Gloria Endres de Oliveira, Jacob Matschenz, Rafael Stachowiak, Maryam Zaree

undine poster



Men have been falling for mermaids and water nymphs on screen for quite some time now. In 1948, Glynis Johns' Miranda was snagged by a hapless fisherman. Dennis Hopper played a sailor who falls for Linda Lawson's siren in 1961's Night Tide. Tom Hanks reeled in Daryl Hannah in 1984's Splash. More recently, mermaids and nymphs have cropped up in arthouse fare like Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse and the Polish musical The Lure. The best of the recent crop of mer-movies is Lisa Brühlmann's coming of age drama Blue My Mind, in which a teenage girl discovers the changes her body is going through are preparing her for a return to the sea.

The latest in the recent wave (no pun intended) of mermaid/nymph/siren cinema comes courtesy of Germany's auteur du jour, Christian Petzold. Working once again with his Transit leads, Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, he's the latest filmmaker to tackle the myth of the Undine, a water elemental that takes the form of a beautiful human woman upon receiving the love of a man. But to retain her human form, she must remain loved by said man.

undine review

Petzold's Undine opens at the point where this is all about to fall apart, as his Undine (Beer), a museum guide, finds herself being dumped by her lover, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). Determined to keep him, she threatens to murder him if he leaves. Dismissing her as batty, Johannes makes his exit. Luckily for him, before Undine can carry out her threat, a new man comes into her life.


Undine has a soggy meet-cute when the affable Christoph (Rogowski) follows her into a coffee shop chancing his arm at a date. Undine is entranced by the café's large aquarium, which begins to rumble in her presence, eventually soaking both her and Christoph. Bonded  by this odd event, the two become a couple and all goes well until Undine's past threatens to ruin things.

undine review

Undine is a slight piece of fantasy that plays out against the not very fantastical backdrop of modern day suburban Berlin (an odd place for a water nymph to wash up). For long periods it plays as a rather straightforward romance, and thanks to the charm and chemistry of Beer and Rogowski, we're kept engaged by this likeable young couple. They're the sort of young lovers who would make an old lady smile if she saw them kissing on the train, and we want the best for them.


Of course, we gauge early on that we're in the realm of tragedy here, and that when water and earth mix you just end up with mud. When Petzold brings the mythical elements into his drama, it feels as though he's too self-aware about trying to do so while keeping his film grounded. We never actually witness Undine transform, rather Petzold gives us obfuscating hints of her true nature and her relationship to water. If he was overly conscious about employing any special effects, how do you account for the laughable image of Undine hitching a ride on the back of a catfish, an image which positively jars with his film's otherwise sober tone.

undine review

With his collaborations with actress Nina Hoss (Yella, Barbara, Phoenix), Petzold has established himself as a modern equivalent of what were once known in Hollywood as "Women's Directors". Beer is the Hoss surrogate here, and Petzold's camera adores her. It has a higher sense of Undine's worth than she does herself, and it almost seems like the camera is trying to catch her unaware as she hides her face, as though oblivious to her considerable appeal, or perhaps all too conscious of its dangers. With performances in the likes of Frantz, Transit and Never Look Away, Beer has established herself as one of the most captivating presences in European cinema. Perhaps the most fantastical element of Undine is the idea that any man could wish to break up with her.

Undine plays online and in cinemas from October 12th as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.


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