MSPIFF40 Review: Undine (2021)


I was really drawn to see this because I’ve enjoyed two of Christian Petzold‘s previous work, Phoenix and Transit. The latter actually stars the same German actors: Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski. The underwater fantasy theme reminds me a bit of The Shape of Water, though this one doesn’t exactly involve a literal underwater creature. Apparently the story is loosely based on a German fairytale novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in which Undine, a water spirit, marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul. 

The film is set in Berlin where Beer’s character Undine works as a guide for the city’s Urban Development project, which happens to be inside a museum. There’s actually a long scene where she gives historical narration about the city’s past and how it’s actually built on water. Just before that, Undine is in a café with her boyfriend Johannes who tells her he’s leaving her, at which point she tells him nonchalantly that she’d kill him if he does. But on the same day, she runs into a man named Christoph in the same café and the two embarks in a whirlwind romance. 


Sometimes you watch a movie where you’re absolutely baffled by what’s going on, but it’s captivating enough you’re willing to go on a ride. Undine is such a movie, and up until the end, I still can’t quite figure out what it’s all about. Both leads are charismatic in an otherworldly way, which are such perfect casting for this movie. The scene where an aquarium tank explodes is both bizarre yet romantic. Undine and Christoph lie together on the floor, drenched in a pool of water amidst broken glass and dead fish. There’s a little diver figurine from that said aquarium that she takes with her, which has a mysterious connection to Christoph who works as an underwater welder who fix damaged underwater turbines. A lot of the dream-like fantasy elements happen when Christoph works underwater, such as when encounter a giant catfish nicknamed Big Günther, seeing Undine’s name written in concrete, and at times Undine herself swimming about as a mermaid-like creature.


The fact that this Berlin fairy tale is set in contemporary times and that the mythical water nymph looks like a typical female human and seemingly function like normal people adds to the decidedly discombobulating experience of this movie. Undine is shown interacting with her co-workers, preparing for work and dealing with relatable life/work issues, etc. but yet there is something that’s obviously ‘off’ about her. For the most part Undine is sweet, playful and even loving, but a scene towards the end certainly shows the darker side of this mysterious being. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say it seems jarring that a violent act is done in such a nonchalant way.


Are everything that happens real or are they in someone’s head? Petzold doesn’t exactly provide conclusive answers and that’s by design. There are parts that reminds me of Neil Jordan’s Ondine, which is more brooding and atmospheric, but shares a primary strength in the strong chemistry between the two romantic leads. I think the less concerned I was with trying to ‘get’ the movie, the more I was able to enjoy Undine for what it is. For one, I enjoy watching the almost innocent, playful nature of the romance, such as the goodbye scene on the train station. It’s always lovely to see on-screen couples being absolutely lovestruck in a genuine, non-cheesy way. I think it’s interesting too that Petzold uses music by Johann Sebastian Bach instead of hiring a contemporary composer, which gives that timelessness quality that fits with the central theme of past/present co-existing. While Bach is a Christian who have written plenty of sacred works, this film is devoid of spirituality or even the concept of God as a guiding principle.

In any case, I appreciate this movie but not swept away by it. Still, you could do so much worse than watching a Christian Petzold film with these two wonderful leads. Petzold remains a filmmaker I admire and I look forward to what he’ll tackle next.

3.5/5 Reels

Have you seen UNDINE? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley, 2014)


I have to admit I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon this Austrian Western if it weren’t for my affinity for English actor Sam Riley. And for that I’m grateful to him, and he’s an unlikely-but-perfect choice in the role of a German-speaking, Texas cowboy protagonist.

It’s always a good sign when a film starts off in a captivating way that made you want to know more. In the opening scene, we see a terrified couple hiding in a basement of a lodge. We don’t know who they are except they’re on the run, but soon they’re captured and the man is severely beaten as the woman is dragged away screaming.


The film takes place years after that incident in the opening scene. A lone rider on a horse saunters into the secluded town. It’s one of my all time favorite opening credits ever. Exquisitely shot somewhere in Austrian Alps, set to the song Sinnerman by Clara Luzia that complement the setting beautifully. It sets the tone of the film that this is a slow-burn revenge thriller, as the action doesn’t really start until about a half hour into the film. But this is the kind of films that rewards your patience.

The mysterious stranger goes by the name of Greider (Riley). He’s got a cold welcome from the chieftains of the town, that is the six sons of Old Brenner. The Brenner clan has dominated the town for generations and for some reason the townsfolk are compliant to their rule. Despite the rude welcome, the Brenners let Greider stay, and even let him take photos of the family with his daguerreotype camera. Greider is placed in the home of a woman and her daughter Luzi, whom we later learn is the narrator of the story.


The film takes its time before Greider exact his revenge, but the moment leading up to it in the woods is brimming with suspense. One freak logging accident happens after another, and of course Greider is immediately suspected. One particular accident is quite gruesome for my feeble nerves, but it’s nothing compared to the brutal scene that happens later in flashback. The film’s plot concerns a medieval practice jus primae noctis (the right of the first night) harshly enforced by the Brenner patriarch on the young woman in the town. The third act reveals who and what happens in the opening scene, it should be obvious by then which makes Luzi’s VO explaining it seems overkill.


The strength of Das Finstere Tal is in its eerie quietness… the seemingly serene vista and the taciturn demeanor of its hero. Greider seems a passive man, not willing to fight back when he was beaten by one of the Brenner brothers during a shopping errand with Luzi. The fact that Riley isn’t who you’d picture as a cowboy actually makes him an effective actor for the role and he more than acquits himself well here. There’s a piercing intensity in Greider’s eyes, and a suppressed restlessness. He made you believe he’s filled with rage and absolute contempt for those who’ve wronged him, but he’s not a monster devoid of humanity. There’s a particularly memorable ‘gold coins’ scene between him and a female innkeeper. He’s so consumed with anger but backs away the instant he realizes he’s stooped to the level of the Brenners. I also love that scene in the end between him and Old Brenner, it’s so emotionally-charged with barely any words spoken.


Austrian actor Tobias Moretti as the eldest Brenner son Hans and Paula Beer as Luzi are two of the most memorable supporting cast in the film. Hans is just a vile human being, appropriately brutal and cocky in his treatment of the hapless townsfolk. There’s a moment during a wedding where he orders the bride to dance that just makes me shudder with fear and loathing. The final shootout in the woods was perhaps a bit over the top with its use of slow-motion, but it’s still fascinating to watch. Greider’s bad-assery isn’t just that he’s a great shooter, but the fact that he’s planned his revenge meticulously, down to the Winchester rifle he brought just for the occasion.


It’s a pity this film wasn’t chosen in the Best Foreign Language category in 2015, but it was nominated for nine German Oscars (the Lolas). I also wish Sam Riley had gotten some recognition because he truly displays such masterful acting here. He conveys so much with his eyes, he can be menacing and vulnerable at the same time.

I’m not well-versed in classic westerns, but I read that Austrian filmmaker Andreas Prochaska was largely influenced by Clint Eastwood’s westerns and some even compare it to Eastwood’s Pale Rider as it’s also about a lone hero taking on a village. But the setting and style in which the film is constructed certainly sets this one apart in this genre. The cinematography and music are particularly striking that I’ve made an appreciation post for that.


The Dark Valley is one of the most beautifully-shot films I’ve ever seen. It made me wish I had seen it on the big screen. Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast seems to have that David Lean touch in capturing those amazing wide shots. Filmed in the mountainous region of Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy, every shot is good enough to frame. The use of anachronistic music can be very effective when used well, and I think that’s the case here. German composer Matthias Weber did a fine job in creating an ominous, haunting tone to his score that fits the eerie, atmospheric feel of the film.

I can’t recommend this enough. It might be too slow or bleak for some but it’s certainly worth a look if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path genre film that’s as exquisite as it is haunting.


What are your thoughts of ‘The Dark Valley?’