Winning the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival in 2020, Paula Beer has been earning massive acclaim for her performance in Undine for over a year now. It’s well deserved, as the actress reunites with her Transit director Christian Petzold for another mysterious and alluring picture that blurs the lines of reality for a transfixing journey unlike anything else being made today.
Completing the trifecta of Transit returnees is Franz Rogowski, Beer’s screen partner who plays her love interest again here. In Undine, Beer is the titular character, a historian working in Berlin whose pain from an ex-lover is replaced with an instant bond created between her and Christoph (Rogowski), a diver who presents her with the opportunity for true love for the first time in her long life.
Mixing the mythic world of the classic fairytale with a grounded reality set in modern-day Berlin, Petzold again strikes this balance that puts us just left of center from our real world. No one is making movies like him right now, and this fascinating meld requires the actors to do some heavy lifting to make sure that the audience stays emotionally connected to these characters and their relationship. Thankfully, Beer and Rogowski are up to the task.
I had the chance to speak with Paula Beer recently to discuss the very unique process of working with Petzold from the first pitch of Undine all the way through shooting the final scene. We dug a bit into the equally phenomenal Transit as well to really explore how the director is able to accomplish these films that sink into your body and resonate long after they’re over. It was an illuminating conversation for fans of the filmmaker and Beer alike.
Read on for my interview with actress Paula Beer:
Mitchell Beaupre: You had worked with Christian Petzold before on Transit, and Undine is yet another fascinating, indefinable work of his. How did he first pitch the idea of Undine to you?
Paula Beer: That was really funny. It was towards the end of making Transit and Christian, Franz, and I were on location at the pizza place we shot at. Christian asked if he could tell us this idea that he had for maybe his next movie so we said of course, and he started telling us this story about a woman named Undine. It was really brief and then he asked us what we thought about the story, so we said that it sounds really nice and interesting and we asked him some questions about the idea, but then we didn’t really talk about it afterwards. Then one day he says to me that he wrote the script and he wants me to read it and let him know if I want to play Undine.
Reading a script can really be a process because sometimes you can feel like it’s a technical document where you read it and you can see that there is the character and there is the story and then you just try to understand what the mission is. Christian’s scripts are not like screenplays at all. They’re more like a novel. Sometimes scripts are like 180 pages long and it feels ridiculous because no one is going to make a three hour movie, but Christian’s scripts are only like 88 pages and yet they still feel like a novel. I read Undine and I already saw the movie in my mind. I called him directly after and said that I wanted to play her. It was really a no doubt decision.
MB: His films do tend to be on the shorter side, and yet he is able to build out these whole worlds so you feel like you’re experiencing something totally unique and complete, so vastly different from what anyone else is doing in cinema right now. Is that something that you feel while working on one of his projects?
PB: That’s so true what you say, and I think that can be felt in how his days of shooting are so unique as well. They’re really short, but they give you so much space, and because of that you feel like you can breathe and I think things happen that are more natural and stronger than if you feel like you’re under this pressure all the time. Christian has his own structure and system of shooting. In the morning we rehearse all of the scenes we’re going to shoot for the day, and it’s only Christian, his assistant, and the actors. We do this for two or three hours and then the cinematographer and the heads of departments come to the set and we’ll have one rehearsal where everyone is looking. After that the actors go to makeup while the rest of the crew is preparing the set, then we come back and we shoot.
Most of the time Christian only does one take, so if we start at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock in the morning we are finished by 6 o’clock in the afternoon. Usually shooting is much longer than that, and I think because on his sets we don’t have these packed days of shooting it makes you feel more like you can loosen your shoulders and get to play. I think that is what you then as an audience feel in the movie. There is a feeling that you can’t really describe, something in his movies that is so different and I think it has to do with his way of working.
MB: Another thing that can set his work apart is that he never puts exposition into his movies. He never tells the audience what we’re supposed to be thinking or feeling. A lot of your work as an actor is very internalized as a result of this. Is there a lot of collaboration between you and Christian where you’re having discussions about the inner lives of the character?
PB: That’s the great thing about Christian writing his own scripts. He always has a little biography about every character, so in the beginning he’ll ask you if you want to read your biography or if you want to make your own decisions. Sometimes I’ll ask him to tell me what he thinks about the character or about his story for her. We did that in Transit as well. There is a scene in that film where my character Marie is talking but the audience doesn’t hear what she’s saying, and I told him I needed the text for what she’s saying or else you could tell that I’m faking it. So he gave me this whole text for the scene, and I think that’s a sign of how Christian and I work. We both trust each other a lot and make our own decisions, but if we want to talk about something we are both really into it and both want to understand how the other one thinks.
Undine the character was such a huge gift as a film actress because she is based in that mythic fairytale world so the stakes are a bit higher and a bit more dramatic. At the same time there is the question of how to combine that with modern Berlin. At the beginning when we were figuring out her look we would question if she should be wearing these long gowns with long white or red hair. The costumes were initially very ’80s, but then Christian said that wasn’t right because she needs to be timeless. Undine lives in every period of time. That was a really interesting way of being able to find the character.
MB: I’d love to talk more about that. She’s such a fascinating character, as you’re threading this needle between her being a folkloric character who has existed for many, many years, and yet you as an actor still need to make sure that she’s grounded in the reality of the moment and in this romance with Christoph. How was the process for you of finding that balance?
PB: It was really, really fun. You don’t get the opportunity too often to be in this world, so in my preparation I really concentrated on that mythic idea of the character and what her reality is. I think for Undine she really wants to love and she wants to find love, and that becomes her world. I did a lot of work to find the character and understand the world that she exists in when she’s not in Berlin, or even on our planet necessarily. It was really about creating this little fairytale reality where she’s in the water and what she’s dealing with when she’s in this little world, then understanding how she behaves when she’s in Berlin and she’s meeting a human being.
With Christoph it’s the first time she’s fallen in love. Before that she’s always been called by a man to be the perfect lover, but it’s never her decision. Christoph is the first man she meets where it’s the love that decides. What I love so much about Christian’s movies and about Undine is that you have this really simple story, but the stakes are so high, and the topics are so universal. We all have those feelings in us, we are all looking for love, we all know what it means to get hurt, and we all know what it means to be alone.
MB: Is that where the core of the character came from for you? In the opening scene we see her being left by Johannes and she threatens him in a way that’s really terrifying for the audience because we don’t understand her yet. Then we eventually see how that is coming from a place of deep pain for her, and she’s yearning for this idea of true love.
PB: I think Undine is love, but in a way she’s cursed. She’s always called by men to be the perfect lover and the perfect sexual partner, and then she turns into this character where she’s always dependent on them and turned into this projection. For her to free herself out of this curse is to find love, and that’s what she wants and what she needs. That’s what I love about the end of the movie, and that’s what I think the movie can give to our society today, is to ask these questions about what love really means. Is love a construction that society draws, or is it more of an inner strength that you need to find within yourself? I think love is really not for someone who is afraid. For love you have to be brave and that’s what I like so much about the decision Undine makes in the ending. It’s a huge sign of love.
MB: Speaking of that love, this is your second time working with Franz Rogowski, having worked together before in Transit. How did the process between the two of you evolve from that film to this one?
PB: The huge advantage was that we already knew each other. When you’re making movies you never feel like you have enough time. For Transit my first days of shooting were actually shooting the last scene of the movie, and by the time Franz and I made the rest of that movie and got to know each other we felt like we had to do that scene all over again. Franz comes from a dancing background and he’s such a physical actor, so over the course of making the movie we really got to understand each other and how the other person works so our characters developed and because of that we knew that we had to do the ending again, which is the ending that’s actually in the film.
Having that journey together in that experience was really helpful for Undine. I think playing love couples is the most challenging thing to do as an actor, along with doing comedies. It’s so much about the chemistry and if you don’t have the chemistry then you don’t have the movie. This was the first time that Franz and I had been in a movie as part of a couple with the same actor within two years so we were talking a lot about what we needed to concentrate on, and if we needed to be doing anything different with our acting. As an actor you always question your intuition and whether you’re making the right decisions.
Something that really helped for Franz and I was that we did scuba diving lessons for Undine, which was actually the first thing that we did. Our first three days of shooting were in the water tank, so we had our lessons before we started shooting and I think that changed a lot of things for us. When you’re underwater you can’t hear, you can’t see much with your goggles on, and you don’t talk, so we really had to communicate with our eyes and our body. Doing that for a week or longer, Franz and I found a new way of communication and I think we adopted that for our characters. It built a whole new connection with this new physical thing that we found by accident because of the scuba lessons. When you dive together you really have to take care of each other, to look after your partner, and I think this helped Undine and Christoph build together as well.
Undine will be in select theatres and on VOD on June 4th
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]