Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Petzold's "Undine" To Be First In A Trio Of German Myths (& A Tour of Germanic Fairy Tale-Like Legends As Contenders for Films 2 & 3...)

During the conversation, the stranger had already occasionally heard a splash against the little low window, as if someone were sprinkling water against it. Every time the noise occurred, the old man knit how brow with displeasure; but at least when a whole shower was dashed against the panes, and bubbled into the room through the decayed casement, he rose angrily, and called threateningly from the window; "Undine; will you for once leave off these childish tricks? and to-day, besides, there is a stranger knight with us in the cottage." (Excerpt from Undine, Chapter 1: How the Knight Came to the Fisherman)
Production has just begun on a brand-new, mythic film trilogy, the first of which will be based on the fairy tale Undine, written by Friedrich de la Motte-Fouque. The story is well known in Germany and worldwide, largely thanks to Arthur Rackham's popular illustrations, and prima ballerina assoluta Margot Fonteyn's signature role as the titular Ondine with the Royal Ballet (with an 'O' instead of a 'U').

The director, Christian Petzold (of last year's acclaimed film Transit) has offered a few clues as to the direction he'll be taking:
"The next trilogy is about German myths. (The) first one (is) about Undine, a woman who comes in from the water, living in Berlin wanting to kill all the men. (And) yes, (it will be) very modern."
Petzold was interviewed recently, just after production started, and elaborated a little more on how the character of Undine will be portrayed. The article extract below includes information on the film's cast and crew for any who might be familiar with Petzold's work to date:
Director Christian Petzold has now embarked on his next film, the fairytale-inspired Undine, and it finds him reteaming with Transit stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, Cineuropa reports. Also starring Jacob Matschenz and Maryam Zaree, see a synopsis below for the film that kicked off production last week. (Ed: Reported in July 2019)
Named after the water nymph that seduces men in a number of mythological tales, the German director’s new movie will portray Undine (Paula Beer) as a history graduate who works as a guide in Berlin in the present day. After her partner (Jacob Matschenz) leaves her for another woman, she is cursed and compelled to kill the man who betrayed her and return to the waters she was once summoned from. Yet unlike the mythological character, in the film, Undine tries to defy her fate. Immediately after the break-up, she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver, and falls in love with him. The two have a wonderful time together until he realises that she is running away from something and starts to feel betrayed.
So it will not have the fairy tale feel of Ondine, the 2010 romantic Irish-drama (with Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda), which was based on the same source. Ondine has few magical effects but very much taps into Wonder and has a very fairy tale feel. Petzold's Undine, however, will be worlds away from that and will be considering a very different aspect of the story.

Petzold is one of the few German film directors who consistently gets US distribution for his films. In an interview with The Film Experience, he was asked why he thought that might be. His answer is very interesting, both for German cinema and American:
"Americans need cinema like the Greeks needed theater. It’s where you learn about community and society. In Germany cinema had to be re-invented because Nazis infected it. So I learned from American cinema." 
We have to wonder, with his eye so firmly on the social and political dynamics of the world stage, particularly with regard to Germany and the US, what Petzold's commentary on current issues will be.  Clearly, he will be exploring the changing role - and perception - of women in his film Undine, but that's unlikely to be the only issue he'll be exploring.

In de la Motte-Fouque's original Undine, a strong contrast is drawn between the wild, (and soulless) Undine, who laughs inappropriately, is 'tricksy' and brazen (see excerpt at the beginning of the post for a taste), and her transformation to the woman she becomes (overnight) on getting married to a human and therefore gaining a soul. From then on, she is demure, quiet, modest and "well behaved". It is completely opposite to her essential nature, one which is surrounded by devilish spirits and creatures that accompany and pursue her, and frighten her knight and the priest that marries them. It is even implied in the Undine text at the beginning of the story, that the water nymph did away with (drowned) a couple's human child, in order to become the replacement foster child - a huge contrast to the meek and tragic figure she later becomes. (You can read the full book online HERE.) Petzold's Undine, rather than being mysterious and romantic, is set to start with quite a brazen edge too, and a very real threat, but also promises complexity as the story develops.
As for the other German myths that might be tapped for the trilogy, there are quite a few famous ones, and though we can't know how the director is considering tying the three films together, here are some possible subjects:
  • The Pied Piper (not to be confused with the tragic Children's Crusade, another German legend)
  • The Changeling (Or How To Protect Your Child - written by Jacob Grimm for German Mythology)
  • The Hoofprint on the Rosstrappe, or Princess Brunhilde escaping the Giant Bodo (in which her stallion left a hoof print, still visible today, on Rosstrappe, in the Harz mountain range, as he leaped off a high cliff, carrying her to safety. This is from Legends and Tales of the Harz Mountains by Toofie Lauder 1881, but it can be seen that Germanic mythology has a lot of overlap with Norse mythology)
  • The Morbach Monster (the location of the last werewolf kill in Germany, which has a shrine with an ever-burning candle, as legend has it that if the candle goes out, the monster will return)
The Lorelei legend (similar to a mermaid) is also one of the most popular German myths, but with Undine already being the basis of the first and sharing many of the motifs, it's unlikely Petzold will be using this one. There is a third water nymph legend that overlaps as well, loosely titled The King of Mummelsee (also known as the Singing Nymphs of the Black Forest), which takes place in the locale of the Black Forest (and a glacial lake) and includes mention of a monastery and nymphs-who-used-to-be-nuns; in some ways, a reversal of the Undine story. Other magical legends are based around Mummelsee (the lake) too, one in which a man in a rat fur coat, with an owl companion, takes a midwife with him to the lake, to help with the delivery of his baby. He paid her in straw, which turned to gold. Another legend says that deep down in the Mummelsee is a blue flower which can make someone invisible.

For the last of the major myth contenders, there is the notorious legend of the Watzmann mountain range, said to actually be a family of blood-thirsty people, who enjoyed hunting local peasants for sport, and were eventually cursed during a particularly cruel and bloody kill, and turned to stone, (each peak of the range a different family member) but it's a fairly simple story. There is a variant in which a little pocket-sized man helps the farmers defeat the wicked king and his family, and the community ends up stoning the entire awful family to death, using so many stones that the mountain range was created, but again it's a fairly straightforward tale. (An interesting local folkloric note: There is a tradition called "Kick the Royalty" in which, even today, locals encourage hikers to "kick the wicked royalty" with their shoes while "walking on their bodies".)

As one might imagine, The Black Forest has it's own unique set of legends (and fairy tales), many of which include a magical element; water nymphs, monks catching ghosts, a giant ditch-digging hen, disappearing night ladies, a headless horseman and a good witch who caused the local vineyards to produce the best wine in Europe. All of these legends are lesser-known, though, and unlikely to be a mythic source for the trilogy.

Veering slightly off the legend-as-complete-story' track, there are the popular legendary characters of German myth that could be considered as well. These include Godfather Death, Krampus (Santa's dark helper), the Erl King (German King of the Fairies), the Rübezahl (a trickster mountain spirit), Barbarossa (a famous king whose very long beard is linked with prophecy) and characters from The Nibelungenlied (knights, dwarves, and dragons).

Then there are many other collections of legends and folktales, beyond the Grimm brothers, any of which may also be in the running, as long as they have some popularity or legendary status in Germany. There are tales by Bechstein (whose work was apparently more popular in Germany than the contemporary Grimm's work, for about fifty years), Schönwerth's collected (and largely unedited) tales, and respected fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes also writes of many other German fairy and folktale collections, alerting us to many other tales and collections "more interesting" than Schönwerth's as well.
"...I can point to some brilliant German collections by Theodor Vernaleken, Johann Wilhelm Wolf, Ignaz and Joseph Zingerele, Heinrich Pröhle, Josef Haltrich, Christian Schneller, Karl Haupt, Hermann Knust, Carl and Theodor Colshorn, etc. "

There is certainly a wealth of possibilities for this new "mythic trilogy", but like Petzold's other trilogies, Undine is likely to be both a stand-alone film, and have a unique context within the trilogy, when it's complete. With Petzold's star shining so brightly at present, it's clear many critical eyes worldwide will be watching to see what he does.

For now, however, German fairy tales are front and center.
All illustrations in this post are by Frances Bassett Comstock.

Sources Referenced:

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, so many new legends and fairy tales to look up--I'm especially excited by all the Black Forest ones, as they pertain to my current writing project. Thanks for the links!