BFI LFF 2020

Undine review – beguiling supernatural romance in Berlin

Christian Pelzold changes lanes for this crisply shot and elusive romantic thriller about a mysterious woman with ties to the water

Back in 2006, an already flailing M. Night Shyamalan released a film about an apartment caretaker who falls in love with a water nymph living in a communal swimming pool. The Lady in the Water was, inevitably, a critical and commercial bomb, so ridiculous and self-indulgent that even the presence of Paul Giamatti was unable to elevate the water-logged material.

Now, fourteen years later, German auteur Christian Petzold has – though unintentionally – returned to this inherently awkward realm in order to show Shyamalan that it can be done. Updating a traditional folk tale about a vengeful water sprite to modern-day Berlin, Undine finds the Phoenix filmmaker blending his usual Hitchcockian sensibilities with an understated supernatural element. But by leaning into the realism elsewhere, he creates something that's quietly mesmerising in its meeting of two worlds – an almost unknowable tale of obsession and fate.

Petzold's new muse, Paula Beer, gives a luminous, commanding performance as the titular heroine, imbuing her character with just the right amount of strangeness without overplaying her hand. We first meet Undine at a cafe, mid-breakup, Petzold making a point to linger on her shocked and tearful expression. A museum tour guide, she's interested in the ways that Berlin's architecture has changed over the years  – a hint, perhaps, that Undine has been around for a lot longer than her age suggests?

Later, she makes a splash – literally – after bumping into good-natured diver Christoph (Transit's Franz Rogowski), who instantly falls for her, though is himself maybe not quite as easy-going as he first appears. The two enter into a passionate relationship overnight, though Undine's ties to the water quickly begin to cause complications. Undine, you see, will be faithful to any man, but is forced to kill her lover if he ever chooses to abandon her. How Petzold reconfigures an ancient myth within an otherwise realistic drama is part of the film's odd appeal.

As is usually the case with this detail-obsessed filmmaker, there's real pleasure to be found in the crisp visuals and composition, furthered by a tight script and assured performances. Petzold has that rare gift of always feeling like he's in control of the material, even when it falls on the elusive side. And there is a kind of simmering anger here that never quite comes to a head – small waves instead of the full-blown tsunami, imbuing the melodrama with complex tension.

Undine is a purposely playful and aloof piece of cinema that, following Transit, further showcases its filmmaker's knack for quiet experimentation. It'll likely sink or swim depending on whether you see it as another dose of Shyamalan-like nonsense or something with hidden depths. Take the plunge and find out.

Undine was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.

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