CIFF Coverage: Undine, There Is No Evil, MLK/FBI

The 56th Chicago International Film Festival continues through this weekend, and there remains a treasure trove of high quality films from across the world to be watched. Here’s some of the darker highlights if you’re in the mood for something serious.


Christian Petzold has established himself as one of Germany’s most esteemed directors in the last decade with Phoenix and Transit. This time, he moves from the past to the present with a dramatic romance based on a fairy tale about a water spirit who only has a human soul due to her lover. He must remain loyal to her, or she will lose her soul. The film kicks off with Undine (Paula Beer, a frequent collaborator with Petzold) separated from her boyfriend Johannes. She might have a cozy job in a Berlin history museum and a nice apartment, but her soul is in jeopardy. Before she has time to process the end of their relationship, she runs into Christoph (Franz Rogowski). Christoph charms her by being the German equivalent of a “soft boi”, and their romance takes off – or takes to the water, I should say.

Undine once again demonstrates the remarkable chemistry that Beer and Rogowski have; they last appeared as romantic partners in Transit. Beer uses her big eyes and soft face to convey an otherworldly allure, and Rogowski uses all his sincerity to portray her naïve lover. The film connects Undine’s desire for freedom from her curse with the urban identity of Berlin and her job at the history museum. Undine wishes to be freed from the shackles of recent German history, but the chains might be too strong for anyone to break. Undine is a must watch for any festival goer.


There Is No Evil

In 2019, Iran carried out 280 death penalties. Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest work (made despite being banned from working in film and under the threat of severe punishment) openly criticizes Iran’s embrace of the death penalty, weaving together four short stories to explore the different aspects of how state executions taint the souls of the people involved.

Rasoulof had to divide it into segments; he had to avoid oversight from authorities. The first segment spends a day with Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini), a family man in Tehran as he goes around on menial errands and spends time with his family. The segment’s closing sequence – which reveals what his job is – is the cruelest sucker punch of 2020. The next three segments focus on two different soldiers and a young ex-pat who returns from Europe and how they deal with the country’s embrace of the death penalty. The three segments swerve between different genres, from thriller to melodrama, but Rasoulof ties everything together with the handiwork of a master filmmaker. 

The final segment is admittedly the weakest, but even then it packs an emotional punch. Darya’s (Baran Rasoulof) declaration on a hunting trip that she refuses to kill a living thing packs a punch after two hours of grim reality where death lingers in the air like smog. There Is No Evil is a courageous film that calls for to an end to Iran’s excessive use of the death penalty. 



J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive hatred of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is well noted in history books, but Sam Pollard’s new documentary brings it into a sharp new light. For most of the 1960s, Hoover was dead set on bringing Dr. King down and exposing him for his sexual promiscuity. The FBI became Hoover’s own personal weapon against Dr. King, and he tapped phones and bugged hotel rooms across the Southern United States in the hopes of gaining enough blackmail material to destroy the civil rights leader. 

MLK/FBI elevates this into a greater context of America’s fears and neuroses involving the sexuality of a Black man, and contrasts King’s sexual life with Hoover’s own insecurities about his masculinity. His desperation became so great that he infamously sent Dr. King a box filled with alleged tapes of the sexual encounters and a letter urging him to commit suicide.

The film makes the smart choice of keeping all the talking heads off camera until the very end, allowing the footage from the times to speak for itself. It strengthens the journalistic intent of the film itself and allows the audience to become more invested in the one-sided fight between these two titans of Americana. 

It also does not shy away from the fact that Dr. King was unpopular with white people, or that he worked with communists and in fact had many socialist beliefs. MLK/FBI is an invigorating reminder of Dr. King’s legacy, one that is more multifaceted than the simple telling we get in high school. 


Chicago International Film Festival

coleduffy View All →

21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.

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