Berlinale 2020: UNDINE And THE INTRUDER (EL PRÓFUGO)

This entry in my coverage of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival highlights two remarkable performances from female actresses. Christian Petzold‘s Undine features Paul Beer as the film’s titular character, and Natalia Meta’s The Intruder enlists the help of Érica Rivas to tell a psychologically complex narrative with supernatural undertones.

Undine (Christian Petzold)

Berlinale 2020: UNDINE and THE INTRUDER (EL PRÓFUGO)
Undine (2020) – source: Schramm Film

With Undine, Christian Petzold reunites with his Transit thespians for an endearing second outing in the Competition section of the Berlin International Film Festival. Both Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski are once again astoundingly convincing in their respective roles, which helps elevate the film’s atypical rendering of a romanticized fairytale set in the modernized world.

The film follows Undine (Beer), a museum tour guide in Berlin who is unusually well versed in the city’s architectural history. As she finds herself heart-broken after Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) puts an end to their relationship, she becomes enamoured with a local diver, Christoph (Ragowski). In unexpected ways, the film then pits the two newly acquainted lovers through a story that revels between reality and fiction.

There will likely be consensus on Beer’s elegant and poignant performance, which almost certainly solidifies her status as a truly gifted actress. The mystery surrounding her character is palpable from the very first moment we see her on-screen, and her eyes seemingly casting an enchanted spell on everyone around her. It’s far from surprising that she ended up winning the Silver Bear for Best Actress award at the end of the festival. Her co-star, Rogowski, is no less impressive as the counterpoint to Beer’s captivating performance. One can only wish for Petzold to also continue this dynamic pairing for his next project.

Adding to the Undine’s sense of enchantment is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Adagio from his Concerto in D minor, which serves as the film’s only musical notation. Coming in and out at precisely the right moments, its thematic presence helps guide Petzold’s rather quiet narration with heightened brevity.

Those not familiar with the mythical stories associated with ‘undines’ (myself included) may find the film’s narration on the subject a bit scant. I should also point out that being familiar with The Little Mermaid might not be overly helpful either. Petzold does seem to rely on the audience having some preexisting knowledge of the fabled elemental creatures, but not being well versed on the topic doesn’t necessarily deter from appreciating the film’s emotional bearings.

This perhaps stems from the fact that Undine is a film more concerned about emotional gravitas, rather than its narrative sensibilities. The film may have intended to embed itself in the mythos of undines, but actually relishes on the fairytale’s very much universal message on unrequited love. And as a result, Undine feels like an overly humanistic film, despite its truly magical properties.

The Intruder (El Prófugo) (Natalia Meta)

Berlinale 2020: UNDINE and THE INTRUDER (EL PRÓFUGO)
The Intruder (El prófugo) (2020) – source: Picnic Producciones SRL

To label Natalia Meta’s The Intruder (El prófugo) simply as a psychological thriller would certainly undermine the film’s intricately layered narrative. This is a film that hinges on the human psyche, but also seamlessly skirts between genres and themes like a caged rat. And in what will surely surprise no one, Érica Rivas delivers a haunting performance that is more than deserving of praise.

After experiencing a traumatic experience while on vacation, Inés (Rivas) returns home to find an ominous sound emitting directly from her vocal cords. As these noises cause disruption to her work as a dubbing artist, nightmares and haunting visions also begin disrupting her known reality. The film’s supporting cast is bolstered by strong performances in the form of Cecilia Roth, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Mirta Busnelli.

What’s really remarkable about a film like The Intruder is that it always feels like a psychological thriller bordering on horror, yet still manages to diversify its narrative to explore other themes too. In addition to examining the trials of a survived trauma, the film also tackles issues on sexuality, gender and religion in a fairly unique way. Everything hinges on this foreboding sense of supernatural proportions that is also reflected in many of the films that Inés records for, and in turn, creates a blurring of reality for audiences as well. There’s really no clearer, or more creative, way of getting into the Inés’ internally fraught mindset.

Rivas’ performance is another obvious reason for why the film’s psychologically complex thematic gestures are so easily felt. Following 2019’s The Sleepwalkers – which earned Rivas some international exposure – she continues to demonstrate her prowess as a performer in a film that will hopefully reach an even wider audience. The way she carries the film from beginning to end is nothing short of marvellous. Audiences looking for a straightforward psychological thriller with some planted scares will be pleasantly surprised with what The Intruder has to offer. It’s a film that has so much to say, and luckily, uses the great Érica Rivas as its capably talented messenger.

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