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MOVIES: Undine - Review (LFF 2020)

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Christian Petzold is a director whose work I’ll watch regardless of the subject matter. His previous two efforts; Phoenix and Transit, were both among my favourites of their respective years and Undine looks to be a favourite of 2020 so far. This is certainly my highlight of the London Film Festival, a lyrical but realist fantasy about a historian whose life catches up to her when the man she loves leaves her. Fraught with melodrama but not in an overbearing way (those familiar with Petzold’s work will be well accustomed to his style of melodrama), Undine reunites the impeccable Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski for a picturesque drama that shines on the back of the chemistry of the two leads, with Beer and Rogowski being magnetic and magical enough to carry whole franchisees.

There’s a distinct echo of Kogondoga's Columbus in Undine’s approach to architecture, multiple shots explore Berlin and the Beer’s protagonist, Undine, works as a historian lecturing on Berlin’s urban development. For a lecturer/tour guide there main character Petzold, who also writes as well as directs, avoids precious little in the way of exposition, making the absolute most out of the film’s 90 minutes to give Undine a poetic, romantic and heartbreaking tone as it reworks the myth of the water spirit into a world without magic. The realist tone would only be appropriate here, but Undine is not without its charms – Rogowski’s Christoph runs to try and keep up with the train that Undine is leaving on, and akin to Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, both characters spend a long time just walking from place to place, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence, but always in a way that rewards.

Undine can feel a little too understated for a fantasy drama at times which is not a slight on it at all, it is captivating. The cinematography is exquisite, and the underwater shots are really well crafted. But it should come as no surprise that the cinematography is that good, Hans Fromm is the other returning figure from Transit who joins Beer and Rogowski, and the film feels all the better because it captures that same magic. The story itself may be a little odd in nature and the suspense drama brings a supernatural twist to its tale, and although a case can be made for it not going quite as deep as Transit or Phoenix it still left a mark on me. Both actors bring an unstable and unhinged element to their parts that make you unsure as to what direction their characters are going to do next. There’s always that air of unpredictability about Undine that few films can muster, and there’s always that air of second-guessing about what’s going to happen next. It’s a movie that only makes it apparent where the story is going when it gets there. Or at least, for those audiences not aware of the prior mythology but it will be unknown to most audiences anyway so there is little effort to be spared in comparing the two films - because Undine feels like it works best when judged alone as a modernised fairytale romance that acts as another great showcase for one of Germany's best directors.

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