After first gaining prominence in Germany as a teen actor, Paula Beer rose to international arthouse stardom with her leading role in Francois Ozon’s Frantz in 2016. Winning the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at that year’s Venice Film Festival, an accolade previously awarded to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Gael García Bernal, put her in demand from Europe’s most renowned auteurs. In 2018, she starred in both Never Look Away, the German language comeback of The Lives of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and Transit, the final film in Christian Petzold’s self-proclaimed “Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems” trilogy.
Three years later, her second collaboration with Petzold and actor Franz Rogowski is finally getting released to American audiences. In Undine, Beer plays a modern interpretation of the famous mythological character. We’re introduced to her amidst a breakup with her lover, informing him that she has to kill him for this betrayal, as per the myth––but from here, Petzold weaves a far more surprising take on a familiar story, one that is as much about the changing face of Berlin as it is a story of revenge and falling back in love.
The Film Stage was fortunate to speak with Paula Beer about the film, her developing creative partnership with Christian Petzold, and the challenges of putting a modern spin on such a famous mythological character.
The Film Stage: This is your second collaboration with Christian after Transit. How soon after that production did you become involved with Undine?
Paula Beer: I think it actually dates back to before we started shooting Transit. Christian said he had an idea for his next movie, and he told Franz Rogowski and me the story of Undine while we were preparing to shoot in Marseilles. It was only a short idea of what his version of the story would be to gauge what we both thought about it. I think it was the very next day, after we wrapped filming on Transit, that we received a full treatment for Undine, and we discovered that after he drafted out this story he not only realized that he wanted this to be his next movie, but he wanted to work with us again.
It was a year later when I received the completed version of the screenplay, and I read it the second I got it. I sometimes have problems reading scripts, as they can be very technical documents, and it’s hard to envision a character initially if there are so many precise creative decisions already being made by the writer on the page. But with Undine, I already saw the movie; this version of a fairytale really captured me. I called Christian straight after as there were no doubts in my mind––we were going to make this second movie together.
While promoting Transit you said that Petzold is one of the most organized directors you’ve ever worked with. How has the creative collaboration between the two of you developed since making Undine?
I’ve never worked with another director who has the same process as Christian. His days are intensely structured, even before shooting, with his method of preparation and bringing the actors together. He has a very precise system of working, and I’ve not encountered another filmmaker who works like this.
I’m not sure if it’s unique for Germany, but here theater companies tend to work “in house”—they have their own ensembles who will work on a variety of different projects. Christian really likes this idea, and he works with actors in the same way, building and developing relationships with the actors he works with. During writing, he’s really in his own space and needs to create his story, in a way that you can tell when reading the screenplay, as every single detail from the film is already mapped out. This is why I find him so interesting––he’s so structured, and yet when it comes to rehearsals and filming, he’s so open to suggestions from actors, and surprisingly thrives on spontaneity. He can adapt to anything the shoot throws at him; sometimes I feel like he has two brains.
For example, we worked together after I read the screenplay to further develop how to make a tangible character based on a myth who could feasibly exist in modern Berlin. And then during his rehearsals with actors, we realized that we didn’t need about two-thirds of the dialogue––so we just got rid of it. Working with him never feels like working; he’s very organized, but you always feel like you’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t together.
As an actor, is it a daunting task to be embodying a famous mythological character?
That really is the question when you play a character you know from somewhere else! If there are movies or books where this character is portrayed, I make sure to not look at them too closely. It’s good to get an idea of how people have previously interpreted a character, but when you get more precise images in your head, you can get stuck––you make choices based on how other actors have played it, rather than relying on your own instincts. For me, the thing that was most helpful was reading a poem about Undine; it evokes a feeling, and that’s a lot better than seeing things too clearly. I want to understand the atmosphere without becoming too conscious of how other people have done this already.
But this is where the early conversations with Christian were helpful too. We talked through the look of the character, whether she should have any costuming that called back to fairytales, or if she would just be the modern Undine that we see in the movie.
Transit was the final film in Christian’s “Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, and a modern interpretation of a WWII-set novel with echoes of the darkest moments of Germany’s past. In Undine, your character works as a tour guide who specializes in the history of Berlin. Do you feel both films are linked in the way they explore this history?
I feel Christian always looks to the past as a way of telling modern stories. He once said to me that you can’t tell an American story in Germany, you have to look at what we have here and find the beauty within that. I think he’s really looking at what he knows about our country and writing the stories that belong to our landscape. With Undine, Christian said that he really misses the idea of a fairytale in Berlin––the city has so many distinct towns, there’s no story or character that can really unify all these different identities. There’s no little ghost who is secretly taking care of the city at night.
But I do feel like Undine represents that, and it’s what resonated with me when I read the script. It wasn’t just about love, or about a city, but about the dreams we sometimes lose, and that’s what I find so poetic about this movie.
In one of your earliest English-language interviews while promoting Frantz, you said that you’d definitely be up for making the transition to starring in Hollywood films, but that you didn’t feel that the time was right. After winning Best Actress at both the Berlinale and the European Film Awards, do you think that time has finally arrived?
The difference between then and now is that I’m more confident with my language skills. Shooting Frantz, and doing the press tour over in France, was the first time I’d predominantly worked in a language other than my own, and that can be frightening for an actor––but now I feel confident in my work and ability to act in other languages. I’d be excited to make films in Hollywood, and there are lots of directors that I admire, but for me it has to be about a deeper connection than that.
I can watch a movie and be really impressed about the work, but you really have to connect with that director if you’re going to work together. You could love the movies, but meet up with them and realize you don’t like them as a person––and in that situation, all you can really do is throw them a thank you and leave. For me, a good working relationship is ensuring that you actually like who you’re working with, and can stand being around them for three or four months. There are so many filmmakers I admire, but I couldn’t bear publicly saying I want to work with anybody, only to find out that we don’t have this connection!
How are you following up your award-winning role in Undine?
Like many actors, I have quite a bit of free time on my schedule right now, but I have a role in an upcoming German-Austrian co-produced miniseries called Your Honor. It’s a remake of an Israeli series, which has also been remade in America with Bryan Cranston. And then this summer, we will hopefully be able to shoot Last Song for Stella with director Kilian Riedhoff, but there’s still a few months to go before production starts. Hopefully we’ll be allowed to finally make it!
Undine opens in select theaters and VOD on Friday, June 4.