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Undine - Little Mermaid with a PHD in history in Berlin

Undine - Little Mermaid
© Courtesy of Schramm Film

There are two possibilities for watching this film: by viewing the female protagonist as a water spirit from European mythology living in the present, or by viewing her as an ordinary woman named Undine (sounds like Andina in Indonesian). Both possibilities are interesting, but in the second one we can sympathize more with the main character, since we understand her as a human being and not as a spirit without knowing what Undine means.

I watched the film in the light of the first possibility. The female main character appeared to me from the beginning as a ghost—I had already read the description of the film. Undine is a water spirit who wants to become a human being and live on land. Her dream will come true if a man loves her for a lifetime. But if the man stops loving her, Undine has to return to live in the water. First, though, Undine has to kill the man. This could be seen as a threat to frighten the man, or it could be seen as an act of revenge.

Right at the beginning of the film, Undine, a historian with a doctorate, appears as a city guide at the Museum für Stadtentwicklung in Berlin. Her friend Johannes ends the love relationship with her. Undine can’t hide how shocked, sad and angry she is. “You know I have to kill you now, don’t you?” she says rhetorically. I had to laugh at the sight of Johannes’ expression—he was visibly shocked and frightened. He promises Undine to meet her again at the same place, the museum café, after her working hours.

If Undine is not a ghost/historian with a doctorate but a human/historian with a doctorate who threatens to kill her boyfriend after he breaks up with her, then I would assume that she either has a great sense of humor or is a psychopath with a doctorate.

  • Undine - Little Mermaid © Courtesy of Schramm Film
  • Undine - Little Mermaid © Courtesy of Schramm Film
  • Undine - Little Mermaid © Courtesy of Schramm Film

Johannes does not return to the café. Undine waits, feels the water in the aquarium calling to her in the café. She is desperate. Suddenly, a man stands in front of her. His name is Christoph and claims to have participated in Undine’s guided tour of the museum. He asks her for a date. The aquarium bursts, both lie soaked on the floor, they fall in love with each other. Undine is saved. Christoph seems to be the man who will love Undine forever—he is very caring and adores her. He works as a diver who repairs underwater machines. They meet in the eerily romantic swamp area outside the city.

Director Christian Petzold is far from producing a live-action Disney version of The Little Mermaid, which is also based on the Undine mythology. Undine in the film and the mermaid Ariel have only the red hair in common. Petzold chooses Berlin as the backdrop for his film, since where the city lies today was originally swampland. Undine, an expert on the urban development of Berlin after the German reunification in 1990, comes from the depths of this swamp. The darkness and gloom that surround her are beautiful at the same time, especially since a Bach piano concerto is playing in the background throughout the film.

“Below the Surface and Invisible”

I think that this water spirit Undine—unlike Ariel, whose sea is clear and blue and who is loved by her family—understandably wants to escape her swamp, transform into a human being and live in a city as cool as Berlin. But unfortunately the gods have determined that her fate depends on the love of a man.
If we think of Undine as an ordinary woman, it is easier to see the film as an allegory of the life of women in the sense of “below the surface” (their inferior or secondary position) and “invisible” (murky swamp water). Both environments carry the progress of modernity in Germany. On the surface one can imagine the masculine—modern architecture, the expansion of cities, the collapse of communism replaced by capitalism.

Here Undine corresponds to the image of a modern woman who has a doctorate and yet has to beg for love and even kill. Human, irrational, extreme, yes, but we must not forget what kind of world makes women desperate: men are regarded as the saviors of women. The film may have been made to destroy the sexist myth of the water fairy, but Petzold is more concerned with turning that myth into a subtle and captivating fantasy/horror love story.