Behind 'Undine': A Conversation with Christian Petzold and Paula Beer

The two-time collaborators reveal their filmmaking processes, talk single takes, and dissect the relationship between 'Transit' and 'Undine.'

Undine Wibeau

Just in time for the triumphant return of movie-going, German maestro of mystery Christian Petzold has unveiled his new film Undine, a mythical yet grounded romance that has generated enormous buzz since its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020, where it took home the FIPRESCI critics award and lead Paula Beer took home the Silver Bear for Best Actress. Some will recognize the title from the age-old German fairy tale the film was spun from.

Traditionally, Undine is a water nymph or siren-like creature who must kill any man who leaves her, whether she wants to or not. But Petzold and Beer have taken their own angle on the story and character. Here, Undine Wibeau works for the German senate as a Berlin historian in the present day, themes of myth, memory, modernity, and history constantly swirling around her with intrigue. And the swirling only escalates when she falls in love with Christoph (Franz Rogowski, who led Transit), a diver who is absolutely infatuated with her, mere minutes after being broken up with by her last boyfriend.

Undine also marks the second collaboration between Petzold, Beer, and actor Rogowski, who became one of the most exciting cinematic teams after the wonder of Transit and the proof in Undine that they could find transcendence again, in a completely new way. We got on Zoom with Petzold and Beer to talk about Undine and the filmmaking process behind it.

Christian, your films always feel like stories we’re seeing and hearing for the first time. Even Undine, a film steeped in tradition and myth, feels new. How do you go about finding the story and coming up with the original premise?

Christian Petzold: Okay, so it was the 25th or 30th day of shooting Transit, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime to work with Paula and Franz Rogowski, and I was a little bit sad, in a sentimental, melancholic mood. And I pretended to have another script. It was a lie, the script. But it was based a little bit on Transit, because in Transit the character of Paula is drowning in the sea and Franz Rogowski’s character has to wait on land, hoping for her to come back from death. And so, my non-existent script was Undine, and Undine is about a young woman. She’s coming out of the water to find love and a man. And it’s about a man who’s going underwater to find love — a diver. So, it works. And I pretend to have the story and tell them the story, and both are interested. So they want to see the story, and I have to write it very fast during my editing time of Transit. I liked this work very much because I know it’s the second part of the story a little bit. But the other way around, the story of the woman. 

Paula, when did you become creatively involved in the process? Did he give you the story after it was finished or were y’all talking about the character of Undine while he was writing and fleshing out the story together?

Paula Beer: Christian gave me the script when it was done. So, I got the script, and I just had the time to dive into the story and read it. It’s amazing what power the script has because I find it really rare that you read a script and you completely forget that you’re reading a book. Because sometimes, reading a script is so technical, and you’re thinking about your character, and who is going to be the director, where you will shoot, what you think about the story.  So, it’s really a lot to think about. And with Undine, I completely forgot about everything and just lost myself in the story. And then I called Christian and told him that I would love to play Undine. And then we started talking about the script, and the character, and the combination of these two worlds: modern Berlin and the fairytale world of Undine. So I think the progress of us working together is when Christian finishes his writing work. But I don’t know, Christian, I have the impression that while you’re writing you kind of need your own writing space. And afterward, the actors can come and be like “Oh, I like that! I don’t like that!” [laughs]. And then you can start dealing with that and working together.

CP: But I must say. Three or four months after we finished Transit, I met Paula in Paris. I had a retrospective there, and it was the opening night. Paula lived there in Paris at the time. I think you were working on your French and preparing for a movie you want to shoot there. And I was a little bit disappointed because I was very proud that I had a retrospective in Paris. And Paula is there, my wife, friends. And Paula said, “I can’t stay. I have to leave.” I was like, “Why? There’s champagne and everything, and the opening movie will start in some minutes.” And she said, “I have to go to a diving lesson.” In this moment, I had the idea that the character of Franz Rogowski is a diver. It started with her diving lesson. Some months later when we started working on Undine, very close to my apartment there is a diving school. And you know, Franz Rogowski, he has something with his eardrum. He was never underwater in his whole life. We thought about a body double for him as a diver, but we need close-ups of his face. So I have to know from the doctor how deep he can go underwater so we can make closeups. And the doctor said, “His eardrum is quite okay. He can go, he can dive.” So he was together with Paula in a diving school next to my place. For him, it was his first time to go underwater. 8 meters or so. Or maybe 6. In a tank, in a pool. Both said to me, “Please don’t come now, come later. We want to stay on our own.” I was totally curious to see them there because I have to have some images I can work with for the script. So I come later and see them eight meters underwater there, like two fish, two catfish in a tank. They are dancing with each other, and you can see that for Franz it was like, you know, a boy who could ride a bicycle the first time he got on. He was really lucky. So, there was this idea that the whole shooting I would be outside of the tank and the two actors are dancing with themselves and don’t me. The work on Undine was a little bit like this: “They don’t need me.” And therefore, it was a fantastic time.

There are so many mysteries in Undine left unanswered. And many of your films often have a sort of cryptic or nebulous nature to them. How do you create that? Do you outline a story and then poke holes in it to create those mysteries, or do you come up with central mysteries and build stories around them? Or something else? 

CP: The fantastic thing about these mysteries is that they are very, very simple. They’re so simple that they are very complicated. It’s like Hansel & Gretel. It’s a very simple story about loneliness and childhood. But when you look deeper in this story, it’s about poor people, it’s about hunger, it’s about civil wars. Everything is inside the simple story. Undine’s also very simple. Like Paula said [in the movie], and she liked to say this sentence: “When you leave me, I have to kill you.” It’s a simple sentence, but it’s so complicated because the sentence is in every divorce. Three days ago, I had to join a friend — he’s a judge — at the family court in Berlin where divorces are made. There are 40 people in this court. And for me, it was like war. You can make ten movies there with these characters, with their anger, with their jealousy. I think if you had knives there it would be a very bloody slaughterhouse. So I love it to have these very simple things because they are so complicated. And for me, cinema is based on short stories and on tales and on one song and not more. Because cinema needs a simple structure. I don’t like movies completely based on novels. That’s not possible. You need a simple story to make it more complicated to be better and richer. 

What was the difference between working together this time and working together on Transit? What changed about y’all’s working relationship?

PB: It’s a bit hard to tell. Of course, every shooting is a bit different. But for me, it was the first time working with the same director and same actor, and within two years. That was really new for me. In the beginning — for Transit, it was the case — that you really try to get to know each other. So, to understand how the director works, what he means when he explains something to me, how does my partner work, how does my acting work with his kind of acting? So, I think normally maybe for six or seven weeks you just try to connect and try to understand. And then the movie is nearly done, and you’re like, “Okay, now we could start again because now I got it, and now it’s so much easier.” So, for Transit, I had one day of shooting in Marseilles, and then I had three weeks off, and then I had the rest of all my shooting days. So, I kind of felt a bit like the character, like Marie, coming and leaving again, then coming back and leaving again. During that shooting, my character’s rhythm was just…I mean I didn’t know what to do with her because she was so much. She was like a little wince, always parting.

And working with Franz, for me, it was really incredible to have an actor who’s so physical, because he has a dancing background. And you really feel that when he enters a set. He’s looking at places differently. He’s looking at people differently. That makes acting with him so — well, it’s not even acting. It’s just being in your character. So it’s really fun working with Franz. Then for Undine, all of this beginning getting to know each other just wasn’t necessary. So, that was very easy because we already knew, and the three of us knew how we could talk to each other. Because the three of us are really different and different in the way we think, work, and how we are. And I think during Transit we kind of found this dynamic. And so it was easy to then start again with Undine. But Franz and I were talking about if it would change our acting. Because we just played an in-love couple in Transit and now we’re an in-love couple in Undine. So, of course, we were thinking, “How much do we need to focus on our characters to not play the same couple again?” Because, as an actor, I think you always have the fear that you’re not original enough or that your ideas aren’t good enough or new enough. I think playing an in-love couple may be the most complicated thing — that the audience will believe the chemistry between them. Because if the audience doesn’t, you don’t need a movie. Because then it’s just two beautiful people and I don’t believe anything. So I think Franz and I have really good chemistry working together, and that makes it really fun. And even playing an in-love couple, it’s not covered with fear or wondering if it’s cheesy or weird.

Did you and Franz talk about carrying over anything particular from Transit to Undine?

PB: For me, it felt more like a new movie and new chapter. But I think our chemistry developed through our working relationship. 

CP: I think in working with actors you can build a little biography with them. I think on the first day we’re in Marseilles on Transit doing rehearsals. Paula said she couldn’t believe that the character of Marie, in the (source) novel by Anna Seghers, was written by a woman, because it’s like a male’s phantasma. It’s just Marie: innocent, white skin, young. No physics, no smell, no taste, nothing. I could see how Paula was working on the physical Marie. And Franz and her are dancing their seats in the hotel room. They tried to make it like choreography. This was an idea I liked very much, and to take this from Transit into Undine, I made it the other way around. I made Franz a little bit more female. I think he, in Undine, is the woman. He’s so innocent, like the female characters in 40s and 50s movies. This is development! And in the next movie with Paula — we are doing it together, that’s clear, right, Paula? [both laugh] — we can build on biographies. It helps the actors and it helps me, too.

Christian, what kinds of things do you do as a director on set to get your cast and crew in the mood?

CP: We haven’t got a film industry in Germany, so we have to invent our own industry. I thought my whole life that I had invented my own structures and no one else had structures like this. But I read that John Gray was also working like this. For me, actors don’t have to leave their bed in the morning before 8 P.M. I don’t want zombies on the set. Then, we have rehearsals, the actors and I, no more. They have their costumes and we are working together on the scenes we’re shooting for the day. We rehearse, but there is no team. No DP, no sound department, and so on. And when we finish our work, when we have an idea for this work, then we call the others and they come and look at our rehearsal one time, and then the actors can go into their trailers for makeup and so on. And the DP and I, we are talking about the storyboard. Where is the camera? What can we do? And so on. And then we do something Paula and Franz always joke about: we just do one take. 

Every shot is actually done in one take?

CP: Mostly. Because we’ve spent hours working on this, and the first take is innocent and thought through in the same moment, and this is the thing I try to find. Sometimes I need two takes, or Franz and Paula will say, “Can we have a second take?” and I say, “No problem for me,” but it is a problem for me [both laugh]. 

PB: I remember we did three takes from one angle and that was really…[makes big eyes].

Do y’all have a project slated for the future?

CP: You’ll have to wait a little bit because we start in May, no June, of next year. 

Both of you?

CP: I have two projects, one with Paula and one without Paula. Paula, I’m so sorry one is without you [both laugh]. But there’s a third one waiting not far away. We will stay some years together, I’m sure.

A New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, Luke is an arts enthusiast who received his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.