History lecturer by day, scuba-diving mermaid by night: Paula Beer has her work cut out for her as the mythical Undine in director Christian Petzold’s new movie of the same name. The 26-year-old German actress also has to deliver lines such as “If you don’t love me, I’m going to kill you” as her character is cursed with bewitching and destroying those men with whom she falls fatally in love.
Beer’s believability in a dramatic role that could have easily veered into John Waters territory deservedly won her a Silver Bear for best actress at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. Undine, in theaters now, represents her latest starring role in a career that already spans 12 years.
Beer’s breakthrough came at the age of 14 in the Estonian W.W. I film The Poll Diaries, after being talent-spotted at her Montessori school, in Berlin. She immediately fell in love with acting but decided that she didn’t want to go to drama school. “I don’t know where that intuition came from,” Beer tells me. “But I was kind of afraid that it wouldn’t help to develop who I am as much as teach me to be how others wanted me to be.”
Beer was born in Mainz, in western Germany, and moved to Berlin when she was 12. Her parents are both abstract painters. “I think I learned from them about trusting your inner voice and trusting how you use it,” she says.
After Beer starred as a haunted war widow in French director François Ozon’s black-and-white melodrama Frantz (2016), comparisons with another precocious German actress, Romy Schneider, cropped up. There is some crossover: the late Schneider also didn’t go to drama school and had a similar facility with various European languages. But Beer does not think it goes much further than that.
“I see it more like a compliment for my work, comparing it to someone who did such great work,” says Beer, who finished high school and then pursued acting full-time.
The role that Beer cherishes most so far is that of a ruthless investment banker in the German TV series Bad Banks (available for streaming in the U.S. on Hulu and in the U.K. on All 4), which has so far run for two seasons. This has to do with its being a part far removed from herself and not one she would have ever envisaged playing had she not been sought out for it. “Sometimes people ask me what kind of character I want to play, and I’ve realized that I really don’t know,” Beer says. “I think that casting directors have a better vision for me than I have for myself.”
This August, Beer will start shooting one of her most challenging roles yet, in the German film Last Song for Stella, where she will play Stella Goldschlag, the Jewish woman the Nazis nicknamed “blonde poison.” Goldschlag became notorious during W.W. II for helping the Gestapo track down Berlin’s underground Jews, many of whom were her former school-mates.
So, basically, Beer will be playing a monster. But she is undaunted. “I am quite excited” by the idea, she says. “I love trying to understand my job as an actress. Every week I have a new relationship with my work.”
Undine is in theaters now
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire-based writer and critic