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Mythology Gets a Modern Twist in “Undine” (Review)

Born out of the Nereids who were attendants to Poseidon in Greek mythology, the mythological figures known as Undines were water nymphs who first turned up in the works of Swiss author Paracelsus. These spirits lived underwater but became human if they fell in love with a man. On the flip side, they were ultimately doomed to die if he was not faithful.

German filmmaker Christian Petzold (“Phoenix,” “Transit“) has taken this lore as inspiration for an imaginative fable set in Berlin.

Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian who specializes in the history of Berlin’s development in the wake of reunification. She becomes distraught after her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) leaves her for another woman, telling him that if he leaves her, she’ll have to kill him. He assumes she is being overly dramatic, and it isn’t long before he is out of her life.

There is a relatively quick rebound after she has a truly bizarre chance encounter with an industrial diver and underwater welder named Christoph (Franz Rogowski) where she saves him from being smashed to death by a massive fish tank. It’s a smoldering romance that gets pretty intense rather quickly, but Christoph isn’t enough on his own for Undine to shake her heartbreak.

Simply put, she wants revenge, but is a good enough multitasker that she can juggle a new lover and also figure out how to ruin the man who came before.

Beer and Rogowski played lovers in Petzold’s “Transit” (streaming now on Mubi and Kanopy) and that helps make their connection feel so much more authentic and lived-in. We feel the attraction and desire as they travel by train between Berlin and the town Christoph is working in to see each other until a terrifying incident on the job threatens to ruin everything.

Petzold delivers a fantasy of sacrificial love that may give you more questions than answers, but it’s undeniably haunting.

“Undine” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020 where Petzold won the FIPRESCI Prize and Beer won the Silver Bear for Best Actress. IFC picked the film up for distribution at that point but held on to it for over a year to actually give it a theatrical release now that theaters are reopening across the country.

Undine” opens today in select cities and is also available to rent on VOD from all major digital providers.

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