(BFI London Film Festival, BFI Southbank, Belvedere Rd, Bishop's, London SE1 8XT, United Kingdom)
12 October 2020 17:40, BFI Southbank, NFT2
12 October 2020 17:50, BFI Southbank, NFT3
12 October 2020 18:00, BFI Southbank, NFT1
12 October 2020 18:30, BFI Player
13 October 2020 20:40, BFI Southbank, NFT2
13 October 2020 20:45, BFI Southbank, NFT1
13 October 2020 20:50, BFI Southbank, NFT3
Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian who works as a museum guide in Berlin on Berlin's urban development. She knows all about 'The Humboldt Forum', and has the knack of choosing just the right blouse and suit. She has a small apartment at 'Alexanderplatz', a master‘s degree in history, and a freelance contract. But underneath the appearance of her modern citylife lurks an old myth; if the man she loves leaves her, the ancient myth catches up with her. Undine has to kill the man who betrays her and return to the water she once came from. And yet, time and again, her gaze wanders over to the courtyard café at the museum to see if he's there, or is still there, or if he’s there again. She's nonchalantly beautiful, and the way she imparts her knowledge about the city that was built on a swamp is as professional as it's graceful. But when her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) is leaving her, Undine’s world is collapsing. So when he leaves her for another woman, Undine thinks she has no choice, until in the moment of betrayal, she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial driver. Undine defies her role as a powerless and spurned woman and falls in love anew, with Christoph, who dives into the sunken world of a reservoir. This is a new, happy and innocent love filled with curiosity and trust. But when Christoph starts to feel that Undine is running away from something, she has to face her curse once and for all. She doesn‘t want to lose this love. The magic has gone.
'You humans! You monsters!' Thus begins Ingeborg Bachmann’s narration 'Undine Leaves' published in 1961. 'Undine' is the betrayed woman of the waters. According to the myth, she lives in a lake in the forest. A man who’s fatefully enamored with a woman, whose love is unrequited and hopeless, who no longer knows what to do with himself or his feelings, who suffers absolute despair can enter the forest, go to the banks of the lake and cry out 'Undine’s' name. And she’ll come. And love him. Their love is a pact that may never be betrayed. And if it's betrayed, then the man must die. Then it comes to pass that he who loves and is loved seems easy and free, lovable and desirable once more. In the myth, the previously hopelessly adored woman suddenly becomes interested in the man again. And he leaves Undine to marry her, his first love. On the night of their wedding, Undine enters the bedroom and embraces the man in a bubble of water that’s going to drown him. She sweps him to death at the scuttling servants before disappearing into the lake in the forest. She has just been left and betrayed by someone whose name is Johannes. Going by the myth, she would take revenge on Johannes and kill him, but Undine defies the myth. She doesn’t want to return to the curse, to the lake in the forest. She doesn’t want to leave. She wants to love. She meets someone else.
"Undine" choses fairytale-material as a point of departure. It's a story about love, but an impossible love, or a damaged one, or one that perhaps evolves. You see how love develops and remains. Undine calls out to the servants of the faithless man whom she has killed. Undine doesn’t want to go back to the forest lake. That she doesn’t want to kill. Undine is one such character who criticizes her curse too soon and is forced to fight. When she leaves Johannes, the man who betrayed her, she’s free. She goes home, lies down in bed and listens to 'Stayin Alive', the song to which she was resuscitated by the man who loves her. That’s when she’s free. But it’s at just this moment that the curse again takes effect. When you feel your most liberated, that’s when you’re most vulnerable. The curse of the old world demands an impossible price for her freedom. But for this instant it’s worth it. She holds on to this moment of freedom so that what she experienced remains present. There’s a man, Christoph, who’s the first to love her for herself, and it’s a love she’ll fight for. And we watch her realize this dream. She’s already human, she wants to remain human. When she goes diving with Christoph, she suddenly vanishes as if the water are pulling her into her element, she remembers nothing and says, 'no, I don’t want to come back here again'. But the enchanted world, the mythical world, won’t let go. It sticks to her, it’s brutal, it pulls her under. The myths and fairytales, men’s myths, leave Undine a pitiful dearth of leeway. Undine is a woman who needs to escape the work of male projection.
A larger part of the film plays underwater in scenes with their very own magic. In the water, you can still feel remains of the old magic. The lake is not an enchanted one in the woods but rather a reservoir somewhere between romanticism and industrialization. It contains both the dammed water, that energy, and a flooded valley where a village once stood. Below is this mysterious, hidden life, the old stories, and above is modernity, steel; yet both are in the same space. And these cursed creatures, the stuff of fairy tales and myths who go about their mischief down below, feature as remnants in the film. The dam at dawn, the underwater world, the sunken city, the catfish. That all looks great, and it draws you in immediately. But the apartment where Undine lives isn’t an organically grown, enchanted place, it’s only enchanted by their love. Two lovers who manage to enchant an ugly place with their love. It has this 'Jules Verne' character to it, the adventure, the people welding underwater in a city that actually went under at this spot. History is changing, as are the legends and myths. Undine is no longer the Undine of 'Fouqué', but a modern woman, albeit one to whom the curse of the past still sticks. And she does something that is not part of the old undine myth, she departs. She doesn’t serve the myth of the past but destroys it. And there’s no such thing as an unpolitical story. The political always slips into the narrative.
Two perspectives are important in "Undine"; Undine’s and the world’s. The film is the story of Undine, and when she has left the world it becomes the seeker’s story, Christoph’s. And if there’s the world and someone who looks at the world and goes through the world, you essentially only have those two perspectives: one of the seeing person and one of their view on the world. There are very few long shots, at the dam wall, of the models. The most important thing is to consider who’s narrating. Who’s this about, who’s watching here? That’s the crucial question in cinema. Is the camera watching, is it taking part? We've this scene where Undine and Christoph are lying on a wooden jetty and kissing, it’s straight out of a 'French Impressionist' painting, a 'Manet' painting. And it’s by contrasting his memory of the romantic image from earlier that the loss of the woman he loves becomes clear. His loneliness becomes apparent through the recollection of that image. We're looking at this 'Manet' picture, and it’s a narrative image, but that’s because it's narrator appears twice. 'French Impressionism' was a more important reference point than 'German Romanticism'. If you think about it carefully, all the shots at the lake are basically pictures that, over a detour via 'French Impressionism', once more illustrate 'German Romanticism'. But this is precisely not 'Caspar David Friedrich'; these are not the images of 'German Romanticism', but rather that’s already been broken with light, with resolution. That’s probably why we look at more pictures by 'Manet" than by 'Caspar David Friedrich'. But we can’t quite get away from 'German Romanticism', try as we might. So we've to approach it from a different angle, via 'Edward Hopper', via cinema.
Motifs relating to the 'Undine' myth can already be found back in 'Greek Mythology'. The word 'Undenae' appears for the first time in a script of Paracelsus published posthumously in 1566: 'Undine', from 'The Latin Unda', wave, is a water sprite in human form who can only attain an immortal soul through marriage to a human. Should she come back into contact with her element after her marriage, she must return to it. Should her husband remarry, he must die. Paracelsus made reference to 'The French Melusine Saga' (12th century) and 'The German Stauffenberg Saga' (14th century). In 'The 19th Century', 'German Romanticism' returned to the subject, as can be seen in 'The Boy‘s Magic Horn' (1806–1808). In 1811, Friedrich De La Motte 'Fouqué' published the fairytale novella 'Undine', which cites 'Paracelus' and 'Egolf Of Stauffenberg' as sources and which in turn became the inspiration for countless variations and reworkings. 'Goethe' praised the text but made it clear that he would have made more of the material; 'Lortzing' (1816) and 'E.T.A. Hoffmann' (1845) adapted it for the opera. New interpretations can be found in the fairytales of Hans-Christian Andersen; 'The Little Mermaid' (1836), of Oscar Wilde; 'The Fisherman And His Soul' (1891). In Jean Giraudoux‘s 'Ondine (1939), the water spirits engender 'Undine‘s' husband‘s death and ensure that she won‘t be able toremember him. As for cinema, Neil Jordan was the last to adapt the material in "Odine" (2009).
Berlin is no myths of it's own, it’s an assembled, modern city. As a former trade city, it always imported it's myths. We imagined that with the draining of the swamps, all the myths and stories the travelling merchants brought here are lying around as if on mudflats and slowly drying out. At the same time, Berlin is a city that's erasing more and more of it's own history. 'The Wall', that characterizing element of Berlin, was torn down in a very brief period. Our way of dealing with the past and with history in Berlin is brutal. "Undine" reworks the myth of the mysterious water spirit as a modern fairy-tale in a disenchanted world. The film deeplies assures work reimagines this legend by way of a new cinematic vision, in which precise everyday gestures are combined with ghostly hyperrealism. The story of a life-or-death love, splendidly and effortlessly told. The fairy tales you remember, the myths that were read to you by your mother; you don’t have to reread these. Their world view is stored in your memory. The condensation, the abridgement, all that's in the narration. The fairytales that are recorded by 'The Brothers Grimm' and so on had been passed on orally, being told and retold, and, at some point, changing more and more. But a few things remained the same. Cinema is more akin to this oral tradition than it's to research in the state library.