BEIRUT: Christian Petzold’s “Undine” looks very much like a love story. While it never stops being that, exactly, the filmmaker deftly nudges his sunny girl-meets-boy tale off its narrative rails, guiding it to murkier places.
The award winning film, which opens German Film Week Thursday evening on the Sursock Museum Esplanade, tells the story of a young woman and her two relationships. Undine is dumped by her boyfriend Johannes in the morning and, in an unlikely jumble of events, meets another fellow later the same day.
Undine (Paula Beer) gives historical tours of Berlin for a living. These aren’t literal walking tours but researched tales of historic parts of the city, recounted amidst room-sized models and projections that depict how the place used to look, how it developed before and after WWII, and how it had been imagined.
Petzold is so interested in Undine’s work (and by extension Berlin’s long history) that it’s unlikely to be mere décor.
It’s right after Johannes’ breakup announcement that Undine leads one of her tours, then directly marches back to the café, where she ordered the boyfriend to remain, on pain of death. Undine’s so matter-of-fact when she utters her threat that you may laugh when she says it (in that “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” sort of way).
Rather than finding Johannes, she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who enjoyed her talk so much he followed her to the café to tell her so. After introducing himself to the upset woman, the large fish tank they’re standing beneath abruptly shatters and the flood of water knocks them both to the floor amidst glass shards, flapping fish, and the tank’s model of a pre-scuba diver.
Christoph is utterly smitten. Undine seems charmed by his attentive affection.
It so happens he’s an industrial diver – welding underwater pipes and such – who’s in town to inspect the bridges spanning the River Spree, and DP Hans Fromm does a fine job depicting the fairy tale charm of the river’s turbid depths.
It’s impossible not to see water, especially the river, as a significant motif of the film. Coincidentally, the Undine were creatures from German folk mythology – something like water nymphs. They resemble women enough to sometimes fraternise with human men though, as the story goes, their affections ought not be taken lightly.
At one point Christoph takes Undine scuba diving in the Spree, where he wants to show her an underwater graffito expressing someone’s love for “Undine.” It turns out his new girlfriend’s not uncomfortable in the water.
Like many of the movies in German Film Week, “Undine” debuted at the Berlin international Film Festival in 2020, where it won the Fipresci (film critics) Prize, while the luminous Paula Beer won the Silver Bear for her portrayal of Undine.
Petzold is best known for “Barbara,” his woman-centred drama from 2012 that’s firmly grounded in recent German history, so “Undine” was a bit of a surprise when it debuted, but it’s no less assured and engaging.
The 7th German Film Week marks the renewal of the Goethe Institute’s collaboration with Metropolis Cinema, the 2020 edition having fallen victim to the pandemic. As you might expect from such an event, most of the movies in this screening cycle (all but one) tell German stories. As most were selected for various programmes of the Berlinale, you can be assured the films are worth watching.
The balance of the programme is marked by a variety – a thriller, a comedy a family film, two quite different documentaries – designed to appeal to a wide audience. Like all Metropolis’ events held since Lebanon descended into its season of crises, German Film Week will be projected in several venues, in Beirut, Saida and Bar Elias (Beqaa).
On 24 September, Sursock Museum will host Johannes Naber’s 2021 fiction “Curveball - A True Story. Unfortunately,” which recreates the sordid story of German intelligence agencies’ involvement in propagating the lie at the heart of the US invasion of Iraq. Fortunately, Naber tells the story with a sense of humour, to make the whole thing bearable.
Saturday, 25 September, the venue shifts to Bar Elias, where Action For Hope will host the projection of Sarah Winkenstette’s 2019 family film “Too Far Away.” It tells the story of two displaced youngsters – Ben, whose family were forced to leave their German village to make way for a coalmining operation, and Tariq, a Syrian refugee. Both have trouble finding their feet in this new place, but the two boys find a way to bond.
“Too Far Away” will be reprised Saturday, 2 October, at Saida’s Ishbilia Theatre and ArtHub.
Projections resume in Beirut Monday, 27 September, at Institut français’ Cinéma Montaigne, with a screening of Burhan Qurbani’s 2020 feature “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”
Qurbani’s is the latest effort to adapt Alfred Doeblin’s 1929 novel, about an ex-convict who arrives in Berlin intent on leading an honest life and is distracted by friendship, love and the need to make a living. Qurbani follows some notable predecessors, not least Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose monumental film experiment of 1980 was broadcast in 14 episodes on German television. Qurbani has updated Doeblin’s demi-monde, with a cast that reflects contemporary global migration.
On Tuesday, 28 September, Tayyouneh’s Dawar al-SHAMS will project Carmen Losmann’s 2020 doc “Oeconomia.” This lucid critique of what’s gone wrong with the global economy focusses on the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy that economic growth is the unquestionable goal of our species – never mind that the resources of the planet are finite.
Since this business is germane to Lebanon’s season of crises, the projection will be followed by a discussion led by economist and journalist Jad Ghosn.
German film returns to Cinéma Montaigne Thursday, 30 September with a projection of Dominik Graf’s 2021 feature “Fabian - Going to the Dogs.” In this adaptation of a book set amidst Berlin’s interwar demi-monde (Erich Kastner’s 1932 novel “Fabian. The Story of a Moralist”), the hero isn’t an ex-con but a hack writer for an ad agency who holds a PhD in German literature.
Fallen scholars are just as subject to the whims of love and emergent fascism as reformed criminals, of course.
The closing film of German Film Week, a by-invitation-only affair, will be projected at Cinéma Montaigne on 1 October.
During German Film Week it is mandatory to wear masks at projections. Admission is free of charge. Reservations are also mandatory, on a first-come, first-served basis, and can be made online via metropoliscinema.net, where details of screening times and subtitling of individuals films can also be found