+++ Opinion +++
When Disney’s “Little Mermaid” starts live action, it will again be: “Why are there no more new stories?!” Understandable in affect. But if you dive deep enough, you have to recognize: Constant replenishment is a constant part of our culture. As well as aquatic creatures dating humans in dramatic conditions! This motif was already popular in antiquity. Well, it went under in the meantime. However, when works by the scholar Paracelsus were published posthumously, in which he dealt with the legend and named its center “Undine”, a wave of enthusiasm followed.
A huge wave, the consequences of which can still be felt today: Undine was suddenly omnipresent. Countless retellings and reinterpretations later were written about her by Goethe and ETA Hoffmann, among others. That’s what inspired Hans Christian Andersen to do The Little Mermaid – sort of a copycat of a poor copy of a loose remake of a loose retelling… you get the idea.
Undine was subsequently overwhelmed by a sustained barrage of mermaid adaptations. But today you can splash around in more pristine waters – paradoxically, without getting caught in strange tides: arte is showing the modern Berlin love story “Undine” as a free TV premiere today, October 14, 2022, from 8:15 p.m.
Undine is doomed to misfortune in the primordial sagas. She is summoned by men on land and in a human form, seeking in her solace for unrequited love. But as soon as they are with Undine, the men are desired by the women who previously rejected them. The men always choose their previous crush, whereupon the ex-woman who has risen from the water becomes a murderess. She is never allowed to enjoy her revenge. She has to go back into the water, which she no longer calls home.
As early as 1961, author Ingeborg Bachmann tackled this myth in “Undine geht” and told it with increased empathy and a dewy will to emancipate the title character. Almost 60 years later, director and author Christian Petzold rowed back into these waters to conjure up a modernized, further emancipated Undine. This Undine is more independent and passionate about her job as a Berlin city historian. Maybe even too much…
Her work takes up most of her life, so she seems exhausted. Burnt out. To be left in this state by her partner Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) is the last straw. She wants to change his mind. Warns him that unless he changes his mind, she must kill him and then return to the water she came from. But Johannes pulls through.
Undine doesn’t have the nerve to react in a relaxed manner. But she cannot flee in indifference either – her life on land is too valuable for that. So bites into the intent to ward off her fatal destiny. The fact that she is now getting to know the industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) is perfect. He is infatuated with her intellect, knowledge and nature – he is the first man to love her for herself. Undine should feel liberated. And yet shadows catch up with this idyll:
Has Undine purposefully fallen in love this time? Does she cling to Christopher to forget Johannes and what he condemned her to? Is purposeful love to be condemned at all, or is love simply love? Questions that Undine (the character) and “Undine” (the film) don’t discuss but take the brunt of – level-headed, experienced and yet charming, letting the heart run free.
“Undine” invites you to simply empathize with this couple and to let yourself drift mentally and emotionally. So it enriches the viewing experience if you know the tradition in which Petzold’s “Undine” stands. However, Undine (the film) also confidently stands on its own – while Undine (the character) is a disillusioned, sane woman going through a period of faltering self-confidence. This makes this film a fragile tale of willpower to change things that seem immutable, and a bittersweet tale of a love that should be beautiful and simple.
Played fabulously by Paula Beer, Undine is deeply sunk in her worries, so it seems almost ghostly and dreamy. The fact that this woman, who wants to get to the bottom of things, seems like she has her head in the clouds leads to friction: Do the opposites attract her – and if so, does that make her lover someone who fully understands her? Or one that’s too simplistic to dismiss this phase as “just a phase”?
Undine, contrary to these questions, wants to fully engage in the relationship. But because she has too much on her mind, she experiences this fresh love in a distanced way. Although Christoph, played with devotion by Franz Rogowski, is a frugal person, this raises doubts in him. He begins to cling. Out of fear of loss, also out of empathy for Undine, whom he wants to support. This restricts Undine – and increases Christoph’s worries, which never turn into an emotional storm:
Undine and Christoph are too experienced to make scenes with each other. In this film, romance is not created by warming, homely lights, but by well-established, experienced interactions. Just as disharmony is conveyed through broken looks, faltering breath and occupied sobs, which cameraman Hans Fromm captures in relaxed, disenchanted images – but the film editor Bettina Böhler strings them together in a dreamlike way.
Therefore, “Undine” is a complex, but unexcited, mature romance. One that refuses to be settled but has already seen too much to still find it all new and intoxicating. It’s a film about love after love – including security and self-doubt. This is as clever as it is beautifully written. And it allows Beer to play an old, bruised soul in a young body that can feign confidence in the medium term, but tires over time.
Whether it’s past experiences and social expectations that impose her doubts on Undine, she imposes her pain on herself, or these things are mutually dependent like ebb and flow… That cannot be answered here. After “Undine” you can sink into these thoughts yourself.