Siren Song

Undine writer-director Christian Petzold talks to Reyzando Nawara about modern-day mermaids, Tinder culture and finding the magic in life.

Love stories always change. A kiss in Berlin 1933, for example, is not gonna be the same kiss in Berlin today, right?” —⁠Christian Petzold

“If you leave me, then I’ll have to kill you.” Undine’s threat to her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Johannes, after he has told her that he has met someone else, seems at first like an over-the-top reaction to the breakup. But it is a curse that Undine must fulfill, for she will become human only when she falls in love with a man who is doomed to die if he is unfaithful to her.

From Splash to Ponyo to The Lure to Song of the Sea, mythical water spirits, usually female, sometimes horse, have powered many film plots. The sixteenth-century European myth of Undine, in particular, lies behind many screen adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, though the Danish writer was not the first to popularize the fairytale in his century. Decades earlier, around 1811, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué of Germany had produced his romantic novella, Undine.

And it is to Germany—specifically modern-day Berlin—that writer-director (and fellow German) Christian Petzold transports Undine in his contemporary magical-realist take on the myth. There, she does not take the form of a mermaid or siren, but a beautiful young woman (played by Paula Beer), who works as a historian at a museum, where she guides tours of Berlin’s architecture and its reconstruction. The breathtaking cinematography, by regular Petzold collaborator Hans Fromm, crystallizes both the romance and the beauty of Berlin, while Petzold’s leads root every scene in reality, even as aquariums explode and giant catfish drift past.

Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski fire up the streets of Berlin in Undine.
Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski fire up the streets of Berlin in Undine.

Water may be the dominant element in Undine, but Beer and her co-star Franz Rogowski bring fire to their scenes together. Where Beer brings charisma and intensity to the titular role, Rogowski, as Undine’s new love interest, an industrial diver named Christoph, offers charm and sweetness.

In the frenzy of Parasite’s world domination, it is easy to forget that Petzold’s previous feature, Transit, appeared in two of our 2019 Year in Review lists—the 50 highest-rated films and the highest-rated international films—and was one of the top romance films of the 2010s. His riveting Phoenix is still his highest-rated film on the platform—one of many to center a complex female character in search of love at a time of personal and/or political crisis. In Undine, Petzold does it again, a welcome departure from other adaptations, including the Colin Farrell-starring Irish romantic drama Ondine (2009), that have mostly told the myth from the perspective of its male characters. Petzold also revises the fairytale, by giving Undine a chance to try to emancipate herself from her curse.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Petzold about his fascination with water, the magic of Berlin history, modern dating and of course, his ongoing collaboration with Beer and Rogowski.

Spoiler warning: this conversation contains plot details regarding the ending of Petzold’s film ‘Transit’ (2018).

Your movie is inspired by the myth of Undine, but you reinvent it by giving it some modern twists. How did the main narrative for the film come about?
Christian Petzold: I think the idea of the story first came to me around twenty years ago when I had a project in Germany. It was together with Claire Denis and also Kathryn Bigelow, and everybody had to make a ten-minute short film for a project based on the museum near the Rhine River. I had written a little dialogue—oh, by the way, Steve McQueen was also part of the project—and it was the scene that we can see in the movie in the first few minutes where Undine’s boyfriend, Johannes, said that he doesn’t love her anymore and that he wants to leave her and she said to him, “If you leave me, then I’ll have to kill you.” Then she goes back to work, and later when she comes back to try to find him again, he isn’t there—so she knows that she has to kill him now.

Then when I made Transit with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, I told them after a very lucky and happy time of shooting, that I had written a short story and wanted to make a 90-minute feature movie out of it together with them. I wanted to keep working and making movies with them because we’ve had an amazing experience together in Transit. This was basically the start of how the movie and my collaboration with these two actors came about.

Paula and Franz are actors who didn’t come from the basic German acting school; their backgrounds are dance and theater. But they both have so much curiosity about cinema—when I met Paula for the first time, for example, she told me that she had bought 50 movies by Alfred Hitchcock and wanted to see all of them, and to me, this is the best kind of school to learn about cinema.

So to some extent, Undine is a spiritual sequel to Transit?
Yes, you’re right. It has so many things to do with Transit. Marie, Paula’s character in Transit, finds her own death in the sea—she’s drowned. And Franz’s character, he’s waiting at the land, hoping that she may come back from the land of the dead. So I said to them, “Okay, the next movie is gonna be about a woman coming out of the sea and going to the land to search for love and also about this young man who is a diver, who is going underwater, to find love as well.” So to some degree, it’s a sequel, you’re right.

Beer and Ragowski in Transit (2018).
Beer and Ragowski in Transit (2018).

You mentioned earlier that you had a great experience working with Paula and Franz in Transit. Can you tell us what it was about these two actors that you thought would capture the story you wanted to tell in Undine?
Paula is a very young actor—she was 23 when we started Transit, and she was around 24 when we made Undine—but when you’re filming her, she has this ability to make her characters much more mature beyond her real age. In one second, she’s 45 years old, with a whole experience of someone who’s had a hard life and has gone through so many bad things, then one second later, she’s thirteen and innocent. And to have that kind of ability—to go from one point to another—is just really fascinating to me. I’ve never seen other actors do this before in my life.

Franz was a dancer, and if I remember correctly, I think he was also in a clown school for a circus, so he can do everything with his body. It’s unbelievable what he can do. He has this amazing physicality that I admire and haven’t seen before in other German actors. When they’re together sharing a scene, they dance with each other. And this is the thing that I like so much about them and the thing I need in Undine, because I need actors who can float from one scene to another as if they’re dancing underwater.

In literature and pop culture, the myth of Undine has been mostly told from the male perspective. You reframe the narrative, to give Undine the opportunity to maybe emancipate herself from both the male figure in her life and the curse. Tell me more about that choice.
Two or three years ago, I had a retrospective in New York, and I had the chance to see some of my previous movies again—[laughing] I’ve actually never done it before, revisiting my own movies. And at that time, I realized that I’ve always tried to rewrite the stories centering on women, which were made by men in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, from another perspective: the perspective of the women.

When I was in Venice for the first time, Claude Chabrol [was] in the same hotel as me, and he had a Q&A. I wanted to say hi and tell him how great he was but I couldn’t do it because I was very young and too shy for those things. I heard what he said when asked why in his movies, the women are always the main characters. His answer was, “Men are living, women are surviving. And cinema is about surviving.” It was such a fantastic answer.

All the movies I [have] made, including Undine, are about surviving. Undine wanted to survive her curse—she tries to, every time, since centuries ago. In so many iterations of the myth, Undine always has to go back into the lake and to the life the curse has set for her. I really wanted to zoom in on that, to liberate the character of Undine from the myth and the curse.

In the movie, Undine works as an historian at a museum, and in her tours, she talks about Berlin’s architecture and its reconstruction throughout the years. How is this related to the romantic aspect of the movie?
Everybody says you can take a love story and put it in the sixteenth century or the nineteenth century, and it’s always gonna be the same kind of love story. But I think that’s not entirely right. Love stories always change. A kiss in Berlin 1933, for example, is not gonna be the same kiss in Berlin today, right? Therefore I want to take the historical aspect of Berlin architecture and its reconstruction to tell the story of two young people in Berlin nowadays, to see the evolution of both this love story and the myth of Undine itself.

What’s the significance of all the buildings Undine mentions in the movie?
The buildings serve a very important role in the movie because Berlin is between two rivers on an island, and the city is built on dried-out swamps, so the element that Undine is coming from, which is the water, is destroyed in Berlin. It doesn’t exist anymore. And therefore Undine doesn’t have any habitats, so she has no choice but to adapt and to live on the land.

In some way, I always think that the modernization in Berlin erases history, and when there’s no history, there’s no magic, which means magical creatures like Undine won’t exist. That was the main idea of the architectural elements in the movie.

Is that also the reason why there are two locations in the movie: Berlin, and the small town where Franz’s character, Christoph, works and lives, which is still full of swamps? To show that in this small town, magic still exists?
That’s a good question. The romance and the myth of Undine is a part of German and European history. It’s a unique enchantment. But in Berlin, where modernization and civilization keep growing and changing, there’s no enchantment anymore. So I want to show how in this small town where everything is still kept as closely natural as possible, the enchantment and the charm of Germany are still there.

There’s a beautiful and romantic poem by Joseph Eichendorff that says, “You must find the right world, so everything can sync again.” To me, that line encourages us to find the magic of the world back. We live in this world surrounded by retro buildings and retro behavior and retro music, but it’s all actually just an illusion of magic. The real magic, that’s something that we have to find—either by movies or camera positions or poems or even by preserving the naturality of a city. And the Undine myth actually has a lot to do with this.

Another thing that fascinates me about the movie is how the dynamic between Undine and Johannes, in some way, reflects the state of modern dating. Is this something that you also wanted to capture when you wrote the script?
[Laughing] Funny story, when Paula read the script for the first time, she told me that she liked it so much because the story reminded her of Tinder and modern dating. And on some level, it’s true; part of Undine is about modern dating. I always think that in the era of dating apps, everything gets much simpler—you meet someone, you have sex (or perhaps not), and if you feel like this someone is not handsome or beautiful enough for you, you can keep scrolling until you find someone new. So, dating right now is like going to the supermarket.

Johannes leaving Undine to be with another woman, who for him is better-looking than Undine, reflects the culture of Tinder. And the line I mentioned earlier, “If you leave me, then I’ll have to kill you,” is the opposite of that kind of dating life. And Paula, who hates Tinder, loves that line a lot. Some of the actors are on Tinder, I’m sure, and that’s understandable. Actors are sometimes very lonely because for six to eight weeks, they are deep inside of a character, and when they’re on break, they’re in some sort of “black hole of loneliness”.

Writer-director Christian Petzold.
Writer-director Christian Petzold.

Undine being a water nymph, of course, makes the water element very important in this movie. But water has actually been heavily featured in some of your previous features as well, like in Yella, Barbara and Transit. Can you tell us why you find water fascinating?
I’ve seen a documentary by Agnès Varda, and in [it] she said, “The place where one element is touching one another is the place where cinema builds its stories.” That’s why she loved the beach, because on the beach, there’s water and there’s the earth and there’s also wind, and they’re touching each other. So to her, the beach is the perfect place where you can tell a story.

For me, however, the reason I like featuring water or the other elements in most of my movies is because it has something to do with seeing my characters coming from one element then going to the other elements; to see them act and react in a new and sometimes uncomfortable place. Also, when you see pictures or paintings, so many of them are about people looking deep into the sea. I always feel like that kind of painting is actually about a desire. And most of my movies, at [their] core, are about desire. That’s why water is so important to me. Deep under the water, there’s the place of desire.

What’s the first movie that made you want to become a filmmaker?
The first movie I loved very much as a kid was The Jungle Book, but the first movie that made me want to become a filmmaker was by Alfred Hitchcock, The 39 Steps. I was fourteen or fifteen years old when I saw the movie for the first time, and I loved it from the first moment. The movie is about a man and a woman who are bound by handcuffs, and they don’t like each other, but because they’re on the run, they have to communicate and come to an understanding. And the love story starts because of that communication, not because of looks, and I love the movie so much for that reason.

If you could program a double feature with Undine, what movie would you pick?
Good question. I would say The Night of the Hunter. Also maybe Creature from the Black Lagoon or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or The Son’s Room by Nanni Moretti. These are the movies that I would recommend for a double feature with Undine.

Undine’ is in theaters and available on VOD in the US now.

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