Undine by Christian Petzold is a strange, otherworldly, watery romance with unsettling depths.
Rolling in the Deepby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Undine myth is perhaps better known in Germany. Though director Christian Petzold doesn’t make it explicit as the underpinning of his film, Undine was a water sprite, only able to achieve human form and the soul she longed for by falling in love with a man, who must remain faithful or forfeit his life, when she must return to the water. We discover Undine (Paula Beer) may be a contemporary embodiment of that supernatural being. But can she escape her fate?
In a bleak opening scene at an outdoor cafe, when Undine’s lover johannes (Jacob Matschenz) finishes with her, her fate is prefigured when she tells him “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” Then she rushes to her job as an urban historian at the Berlin City Museum, where she lectures professionally and fluently on the postwar architectural reconstruction of the city in an exhibition hall of scale models.
Returning to the cafe, Undine is approached by Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver impressed by her presentation. He’s fallen in love. The two bond unexpectedly when the aquarium in the cafe inexplicably shatters and engulfs them in a flood. Their shared affinity with water draws this apparently unsuited couple together in a intense whirlwind romance,
Images of glaucous wateriness pervade the film. Part of the strangeness of the couple’s world and their romance is that they seem isolated together in an intense bubble. Scenes of the development of their love affair and magic realist happenings are interwoven with lengthy scenes of Undine’s presentations on Berlin’s postwar urban, social and economic transformation, particularly an 18th century palace that’s being rebuilt in the 21st century. The effect is unsettling: perhaps it contextualises the mutation of past into present that Undine personifies.
This is the second time Beer and Rogowski have played doomed lovers, the first in Transit, another disturbing Petzold film that blurs past and present. Their performances as lovers are again compelling in Undine but there’s an otherworldliness and chilliness to the film that the soundtrack of Bach and Bee Gees encourages. Undine is intriguing but its mystery is somewhat unsatisfying. Fans of Petzold’s films may feel this is not one of his best.
It’s reported that after his acclaimed Barbara, Phoenix and Transit, Undine is the first in a trilogy Petzold plans based on myths.
Undine premiered at the Berlinale, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 2 April 2021.