‘Undine’ star Paula Beer on her new movie and more

Photo: JJens Kalaene / picture alliance via Getty Images

At the Venice Film Festival five years ago, German actress Paula Beer, then 21 with a handful of film roles under her belt, was propelled into international spotlight. The catapult was Frantz by the prolific French author François Ozon, who, judging by his one-year filmography, seems to never stop working. Set in the devastating wake of World War I, it follows Beer’s protagonist Anna mourning the death of her fiancé. But his head is soon turned, as is so often the case, by a Frenchman with a devilish mustache – until FrantzThe big reveal: This Frenchman killed Anna’s titular husband in the trenches, and his court is motivated by guilt. It is a performance rich in subtlety and pathos, which earned him the Marcello Mastroianni prize in Venice 2016, awarded to the best young performer of the year.

In 2018 she starred in Transit, his first collaboration with beloved Berlin School author Christian Petzold. The lion’s share of the film centers on Franz Rogowski’s Georg, a political refugee in today’s occupied Paris, as a fascist movement sweeps the country. A fortuitous turn of events puts a dissident writer’s transit papers in Georg’s hands, promising him a safe haven in Mexico. He fled to Marseille, where he met Marie de Beer, the writer’s ex-wife, who was ready to scare her away with him. Although her appearances in the film are relatively brief, she and Rogowski have shown clues to their formidable chemistry. Brought together by the hot iron of political persecution, they quickly fall into a case, or at least something close to it. Like with Frantz, even in the midst of the horrors of war, romance surfaces. Now in Undine, the new german language film made by Petzoldt, she portrays a hopelessly ageless sea mermaid for a diver played by Rogowski, and it’s here that the actors’ on-screen partnership bears its sweetest fruits. So far, at least.

Undine is as awesome as one would expect from a filmmaker who rarely stumbles, but his gloomy, alluring fantasy is elevated even higher by Beer’s eerie performance. It’s no surprise that the role has earned her two coveted awards: a Silver Bear at the Berlinale and Best Actress at the European Film Awards. In early June, Vulture spoke with Beer about working with so many renowned international authors at such an early stage in his career, the importance of Undine ‘s universally resonant message of love, and his take on Hollywood.

It has been over a year since Undine premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. How was this experience different for you?

The Berlinale has always been a huge, huge festival in my own hometown. I think it seemed a little more important to me because since I was a little girl I always knew that all the big stars and all these amazing filmmakers came to Berlin to present the films. So to be in competition for the second time with Christian [Petzold] was just amazing, and it’s so good that our work is so well received. And the silver bear has always been so huge thing you could win in Berlin, and it was just crazy. I was like, What just happened?

How do you think Undine will be received by the American public?

Well, it’s really hard to say. I always think the mood you are in when watching a movie really forms the impression you get from it. Undine, because it’s a myth, and it’s a dream world, and it’s about so much love and deep feelings that everyone knows – I think we can all relate to that. Especially at a time when we are faced with ourselves, and perhaps our greatest fears, and the system we so believed in is now a bit fragile; it helps to be surrounded by a movie that talks so much about feelings that we all understand.

What I’ve loved about the script from the very beginning is that Ondine is so full of love, even though she’s not entirely human. She really makes me believe in love and gives me hope that we can all achieve it, because she is so pure and naive in a way – like a little angel, but she is cursed. It is about passion, desire, lack of someone, and above all about the beauty of life. And that, really, for me, it’s so nice to have during a pandemic, to have a little fairy character that gives you hope that love exists, and how strong that can be. You have to be brave to go for love, but then you get such a huge gift and so much power. Yes. It’s a good movie for her.

He’s such a compelling character, and there are so many layers there. I was fascinated by her dual role as an architectural historian, with her mastery of Berlin history. How did you interpret this side of her?

Oh, I loved it when I read the script, I called Christian afterwards like, “You made huge text passages for me!” [Laughs.] He just love turning a take, and then you’re really stuck like Alright that’s it. It was quite a challenge. But I really like the idea that it’s not just a job for her, but it’s kind of her history with the city, because it existed before humans arrived – Berlin was built on water. .

I love the idea of ​​her telling her story to the people she loves, to the city she loves. It’s sort of the call of the modern siren. When the extras came for these scenes, I think they knew what we were going to shoot, but when they heard the dialogue around the history of Berlin for the first time, they were like: Ah I didn’t know. It made him really alive and beautiful that people actually listened to.

Petzold – I am particularly thinking of Transit now – often deals with a sense of timelessness. Along with the historical elements, I think Ondine exists outside of a specific time space. It’s almost like she’s out of rhythm with everyone.

Yes, I really like the way Christian tells stories. He doesn’t just bring the story back to the facts, as if the story is happening here and there. He makes it more universal by taking the conflict out of its context. Like with Transit, the Anna Seghers book it is adapted from is set in the 1940s, so there is a particular moment, but it reframes it in such a way that it is a description of where we are today, right? It’s settled today, but it really happened almost 100 years ago. I think that opens up so many more questions, if you want to see them – and if not, you’ve just got a great movie. I like what Christian says about movies, that he likes simple stories, because emotions can get so complex. And I think that’s what makes it really universal, that you can connect to the main conflict.

I want to talk a bit about your previous career. You’ve been playing since you were 14, haven’t you?

Yes, I was 14 when I shot my first film, and before that I was working in the theater.

Five years later Frantz, is your career where you imagined it?

Ah no, no, absolutely not. I have always liked to play; I’ve always loved shooting, telling stories, finding characters and discovering scenarios. And I actually like the ideas people have for me, or what kind of potential they see in me. And I still think it’s more interesting than imagining what kind of character I would like to play. So I’m always very open, and I don’t expect anything from my career, or from my job, or from anyone. It’s always a huge surprise when people ask me to be a part of their projects, like: Oh really? Thank you! [Laughs.] So yes, five years ago I was 21… no, I had no idea what could happen.

During this time you have worked with many great contemporary authors – Ozon, Petzold, von Donnersmarck. Were there any specific lessons you learned from it?

They all work so differently. But I think what I’ve learned from working on movies is that it really helps to know a little bit about who you are and how things work for you. Making a movie is so stressful, you work with so many new people, it’s so exciting. That’s the thing with this job, it’s too exciting for me sometimes, because you have to make so many impressions in a day, and then you have to act, make the scenes work, and open your heart for your character. It is really complex.

Filmmakers all have their own vision. And I think directors mostly have to believe in their vision, because they’re such a huge team – sometimes it’s 50 to 250 people – so they really need to have a big ego to believe that “my vision is the right vision “. You have to be able to handle it, be fluid and be open.

You’ve already stacked so many European heavy hitters, but looking to the future, are you interested in Hollywood?

I mean, to me, “Hollywood” right now it’s just, it’s just a word – it’s… somewhere. But I would like to work in different countries and shoot in English or in different languages. I always find it really fascinating to understand how people from other countries tell stories, and why, and how different the shoot can be. So I would love that. But I don’t force anything. I think whatever happens, it happens for a reason. And if not, that is also a reason.

About Norma Wade

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