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Sydney Film Festival review: Undine

An underwater fairytale.

For a film named after a mythical water-being, Christian Petzold’s Undine is far from traditionally mystical. Whereas Neil Jordan’s 2009 film, Ondine, gave us a suitably ethereal, nature-driven retelling of the mermaid folklore, Petzold’s interpretation seems far more interested in East German architecture and the ins and outs of industrial diving. But despite how ironically dry Undine may sound on the surface, the film is confidently held afloat by an intimate romance delicately told, and is enchanting to a fault. 

Undine’s plot is elusive to say the least, but more or less revolves around an enigmatic historian whose deep connections to the water begin to surface when she unexpectedly falls in love with a diver. It is a film that never fully gives itself away, and one that manages to maintain an ambiguity as to whether anything magical ever really happens at all. As a result, Undine’s foray into the world of fantasy is not as much a departure from Petzold’s previous films as one might expect, given the director’s penchant for crafting realistic works of social, historical and political relevance. Undine’s grounded take on a recognisable fairytale stands out as a unique exploration of German history, and one that uses its social backdrop and mythos to explore themes of betrayal, alienation, and how we can never escape the ghosts of our past. 

Upon its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020, lead actress Paula Beer took home a well-deserved Silver Bear award for Best Actress. With Undine Wibeau, Beer crafts a charmingly enigmatic protagonist with a clear sense of world-weariness and pathos, but a great gentleness as well. The romance she and Franz Rogowski share on-screen is a masterclass in believability. Less a case of searing chemistry and more an intimate, tender and passionate love story. It may not be the most literally magical element of the film, but is without a doubt the part that feels the most like a fairytale. 

This is the second of Petzold’s films to star the pair, immediately following on from 2018’s Transit. In his introduction to the film at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, Petzold announced that Undine is in fact the second in an unofficial trilogy of collaborations between Beer and himself, with the third entering production early next year. We can only hope Rogowski is returning as well. 

Whereas the central romance of Undine is sure to warm even the coldest of hearts, the film as a whole might prove tough for those expecting a more traditional experience. Petzold provides little in the way of context, and those like myself — who have only a basic knowledge of German history — will struggle to pick up on the film’s deeper layers of subtext. To watch Undine also means to sit through a handful of dense lectures on the architecture and city-planning of East Berlin (complete with dioramas), which often make you feel as though you’re visiting a museum rather than watching a film. That said, the puzzle Petzold creates for audiences to solve is part of the film’s lingering effect, and whereas I felt somewhat left in the dark upon first leaving the cinema, further reflection and research have only made me appreciate the film that much more. 

Undine may seem inscrutable upon first watch and is hardly the most accessible supernatural romance you’re likely to come across, but its thematic density rarely subtracts from its deeply absorbing performances and aesthetics. As far as retellings of classic legends go, Undine’s approach is certainly unique; undoubtedly distant at times but nonetheless engaging. There is a staying power to this film that is hard to deny, and with a short-and-sweet runtime of 86 minutes, is most definitely worth your time. It contains much that is inexplicable, but after all, isn’t that what makes fairytales so enchanting?