At the Venice Film Festival five years ago, German actress Paula Beer, then 21 with a handful of film roles to her name, was propelled into the international spotlight. The catapult was Frantz by prolific French auteur François Ozon, who, judging by his feature-a-year filmography, never seems to stop working. Set in the devastating wake of the First World War, it follows Beer’s protagonist, Anna, who is mourning the death of her fiancé. But her head is soon turned, as is so often the case, by a Frenchman with a devilish mustache — up until Frantz’s big reveal: said Frenchman killed Anna’s titular husband in the trenches, and his courting of her is driven by guilt. It is a performance rich with subtlety and pathos, winning her Venice’s 2016 Marcello Mastroianni Award, given to the year’s best young performer.
In 2018, she starred in Transit, her first collaboration with the much adored Berlin School auteur Christian Petzold. The lion’s share of the film focuses on Franz Rogowski’s Georg, a political refugee in an occupied present-day Paris, as a fascist movement sweeps through the country. A fortuitous turn of events puts a dissident writer’s transit papers in Georg’s hands, promising him safe harbor in Mexico. He flees to Marseille, where he meets Beer’s Marie, the writer’s estranged wife, who’s ready to make her escape with him. Though her appearances in the film are relatively brief, she and Rogowski showed hints of their tremendous chemistry. Brought together by the scalding iron of political persecution, they quickly fall into an affair, or, at least, something akin to one. As with Frantz, even amid the horrors of war, romance bubbles to the surface. Now, in Undine, the newly released German-language film directed by Petzoldt, she portrays an ageless sea siren head over heels for a diver played by Rogowski, and it is here that the actors’ onscreen partnership bears its sweetest fruit. Thus far, at least.
Undine is as great as you’d expect coming from a filmmaker who rarely makes a wrong move, but its dark, seductive fantasy is even more elevated by Beer’s eerie performance. It’s no surprise that the role won her two coveted awards: a Silver Bear at the Berlinale and Best Actress at the European Film Awards. In early June, Vulture chatted with Beer about working with so many acclaimed international auteurs at such an early stage of her career, the importance of Undine’s universally resonant message of love, and her take on Hollywood.
It’s been over a year since Undine premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. How was that experience different for you?
The Berlinale was always this huge, huge festival in my own hometown. I think it felt a little more important because, since I was a little girl, I always knew all the big stars and all these amazing filmmakers were coming to Berlin to present the movies. So being in the competition for the second time with Christian [Petzold] was just incredible, and it’s so nice that our work is so welcomed. And the Silver Bear has always been this just huge thing you could win in Berlin, and that was just crazy. I was like, What just happened?
How do you think Undine will be received by American audiences?
Well, that’s really hard to tell. I always think that the mood you’re in when you’re 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 so much about love and deep feelings that everyone knows — I think we can all relate to that. Especially at a time when we’re confronted with ourselves, and maybe our biggest fears, and the system we believed in so much is now a bit shaky; it’s helpful to be surrounded by a movie that’s so much about feelings we all understand.
What I loved about the script from the very beginning is that Undine is so full of love, even though she’s not entirely human. She makes me really believe in love, and gives me hope that we can all achieve that, because she’s so pure and naïve in a way — like a little angel, but she’s cursed. It’s about passion, and desire, and about missing someone, and above all, just the beauty of life. And that, really, for me, is 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. Yeah. It’s a good movie for her.
She’s such a compelling character, and there’re so many layers there. I was fascinated by her dual role as an architectural historian, with her fluency around the history of Berlin. How did you interpret that side of her?
Oh, I loved that when I read the script, I was calling Christian afterwards like: “You made some huge text passages for me!” [Laughs.] He just loves shooting one take, and then you’re really nailed, like, Okay, that’s it. That was quite a challenge. But I really like the idea that it isn’t just a job for her, but it’s kind of her story with the city, because she existed before the humans actually arrived — Berlin was built on the water.
I like the idea that she tells her story to the people she loves, from the city she loves. It’s sort of the modern siren’s call. When the extras came for those 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: Oh, I didn’t know. That made it really alive, and beautiful that people were actually listening.
Petzold — I’m thinking particularly about Transit now — often deals with a sense of timelessness. Along with the historical stuff, I think Undine exists outside of a specific temporal space. It’s almost as if she’s out of tempo with everyone else.
Yeah, I really like that about Christian’s way of telling stories. He doesn’t just bring the story to fact, like, the story happens here and then. He makes it more universal by pulling the conflict out of context. Like with Transit, the Anna Seghers book it’s adapted from is set in the 1940s, so there is a particular time, but he reframes it in a way to make it about our current situation, right? It’s set today, but really it happened nearly 100 years ago. I think that opens so many more questions, if you want to see them — and if not, you’ve just got a beautiful movie. I like what Christian says about movies, that he loves simple stories, because the 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 little about your earlier career. You’ve been performing since you were 14, right?
Yeah, I was 14 when I shot my first movie, and before that I worked in the theater.
Five years on from Frantz, is your career where you imagined it would be?
Oh no, no, absolutely not. I always loved acting; I always loved shooting, telling stories, finding characters and discovering scripts. And actually, I love the ideas that people have for me, or what kind of potential they see in me. And I always think that’s more interesting than imagining myself what kind of character I would like to play. So I’m always really open, and I’m not expecting anything from my career, or my job, or 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 yeah, five years ago, I was 21 … no, I had no idea what could happen.
In that time you’ve worked with a lot of the great contemporary auteurs — Ozon, Petzold, von Donnersmarck. Were there any particular lessons you learned from them?
They all work so differently. But I think what I learned from working on movies is that it’s really helpful if you know a bit about who you are, and how things work for you. Shooting a movie is so stressful, you’re working with so many new people — it’s so exciting. That’s the thing about this job, it’s too exciting for me sometimes, because you have to make so many impressions within one day, and then you have to perform, make scenes work, and open your heart for your character. It’s really complex.
Filmmakers all have their own vision. And I think directors especially have to believe in their vision, because they put such a huge team together — sometimes it’s 50 to 250 people — so they really need to have a big ego to believe “my vision is the right vision.” You have to be able to deal with that, to be fluid, and to be open.
You’ve already stacked such a high deck of European big hitters, but looking ahead, does Hollywood interest you?
I mean, for me, “Hollywood” right now is just, it’s just a word — it’s … somewhere. But I would love to work in different countries, and to shoot in English or different languages. I always find it really fascinating, understanding how people from other countries tell stories, and why, and just how different shooting can be. So I would love that. But I’m not forcing anything. I think anything that happens, it happens for a reason. And if not, that’s a reason, too.