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BERLINALE 2020 Competition

Christian Petzold • Director of Undine

“Undine exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse”

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- BERLINALE 2020: We sat down with Christian Petzold, the director of Undine, shown in the competition of this year's Berlinale

Christian Petzold  • Director of Undine
(© Marco Krüger/Schramm Film)

We talked to German director Christian Petzold, whose film Undine [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Christian Petzold
film profile
]
was selected for the competition at this year's Berlinale. The helmer offers his own interpretation of the myth of the aquatic creature Undine, who, because of a curse, has to kill all the men who are unfaithful to her. The main actors are Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, who also toplined Transit [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Christian Petzold
interview: Franz Rogowski
film profile
]
, presented in last year’s Berlinale competition.

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Cineuropa: You were inspired by the story Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. What does it mean to you?
Christian Petzold
: I studied literature and have read a lot in my life. With my children, I started to read fairy tales again, and I also read the story of The Little Mermaid to them. At the same time, I read a book by Peter von Matt about betrayed love in literature, where he also has a chapter on the aquatic creature Undine. He quotes the fantastic sentence, “I cried him to death.” Undine sees this man who betrayed her and envelops him in the water bubble around her. He falls to the ground and dies.

Undine made me think of the relationship between directors and main actresses as well as the one between muses and artists. Isn't it a sort of perpetual betrayed love for all the Undines of this world? Don't men always dominate everything? It's not that Undine wins in the story; she has to go back in the water and wait for the next man to come along. She exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse. Our story aims to explore an Undine who is struggling against this. Then along comes a man, a proletarian, an industrial diver, who interferes with the curse. He is not suspicious; he’s innocent and for the first time seems to see her primarily without any sexual desire and without wanting to dominate her. This is new for her, and a path to a new world seems possible.

What was the intention behind getting the main actress to play a town history guide?
First, I wrote a short story featuring Undine, in which she works in a modern-art museum. The film took on a more concrete form at the end of the shoot for Transit. I was sad that we had finished the movie and that we were going to go our separate ways, and then I thought that I would like to offer the two characters and actors something akin to a second part of their love story in Transit. There, at the end, the woman goes into the water, so I wanted the woman to come back out of the water and the man to go into it to search for her. I was describing it to the actors, when I thought about the miniature town models I had seen in the museum in Berlin. I think it is very fitting, since Berlin is a city that was founded on water.

What do you like the most about Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski?
Before Transit, I didn't know them. And they didn't know each other, either. I saw that from the very first moment they met in Marseille, they seemed almost like two dancers, reacting to each other. They were like two dancers who get very close, but like in tango, they still keep a certain distance, which shows the respect they have for each other. I enjoyed each and every day I was shooting with them.

Undine is a love story, but you decided not to show any explicit sex scenes...
I don't like sex scenes. I can't recall any good sex scenes in film, besides in Don't Look Now by Nicolas Roeg. Normally we have sex in the dark, but for film, we switch on the light in order to be able to see something. I think in sex scenes, you are always aware of the director’s input. I want the sex scenes to belong to the characters; I don't want to make something for the viewer to feel entertained by. In Undine, they kiss under the blankets and Undine pulls them over her head – I felt as if she was diving into the water, as if the orgasm were like sinking.

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