Movies · Reviews

‘Undine’ Blends Mystery, Myth, and Romance to Devastating Effect

In a lean ninety minutes, German auteur Christian Petzold flips an ancient fairytale on its head.
IFC Films
By  · Published on October 24th, 2020

Undine opens as Christian Petzold films do: drowning in mystery. Without notice, we’re thrust into the final moments of a relationship spiraling out of control at an outdoor café in Berlin. Undine (Paula Beer) and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) leverage accusations against one another. Unignorable questions get the silent treatment. And mere minutes in, Undine calls on her mythological namesake with a tone-defining threat: “If you leave me, I have to kill you. You know that.”

The German Romanticist myth of Undine is common in Petzold’s home country, but less known in the US. As the story goes, Undine is a soulless female water nymph/siren/mermaid who lures men in only to kill them when they leave her. Historically, she’s a hyper-sexualized creature, her beauty a terminal danger for the lusting men who can’t keep their commitment. But Petzold takes a modern angle.

Undine Wibeau is an urban historicist for the German Senate. At work, she waxes poetic about the architectural infrastructure of the city for tour groups, weaving in politics, culture, economics, architectural theory, and history to contextualize the relationship between the old city and the new. Each memorized word plunges us deeper into the mystique of Undine and Petzold’s singular blend of the personal, political, and historical, specifically in regards to the wake of destruction and implication left behind by World War II.

It’s immediately clear that Petzold’s Undine won’t be relegated to a sex object. Conversely, he transforms the myth by approaching it from her perspective — that of someone looking for love, and, perhaps, trapped in a cycle of violence, cursed. That is until Christoph (Franz Rogowski) comes along.

Seconds after being left by Johannes, Undine, in a state of romantic shock, is asked out by an eager Christoph unaware of her situation. She is silent. He knows only that he is inordinately drawn to her. A small, lofted aquarium behind them rumbles, and the airless sound of underwater noise fills the soundscape until everything erupts, the glass shattering to unleash a wave of water that knocks the two down. They lay on the floor unfazed, eyes locked, in love.

That’s how the two are most of the time: smiling, swooning, and hypnotized by one another. Petzold’s film is a wet, tragic romance, misery and bliss constantly trading hands while ambiguity lurks in the deep. We experience both a breakup and love at first sight in their all-consuming extremes in what is effectively the opening sequence all while having an existential crisis over the identity of Undine as she relates to the myth (or doesn’t).

Wet might seem like a strange word, but it’s true literally, thematically, tonally, sonically, even down to the sneaky post-credits scene. The repeated, melancholic Bach piano rendition that scores the film is bathed in reverb. Several scenes take place in or underwater, as Christoph works as an industrial diver. Every romantic indulgence between Undine and Cristophe is passionate, every parting as desperate as a soldier’s sendoff, every kiss a sensual implosion. And the nautical myth looms over everything.

It’s never fully clear to what degree the narrative onscreen aligns with or pushes against the myth, but the two are always crossing paths, which keeps the audience guessing. This is magical realism in camouflage — fantasy and reality wrestling on-screen, competing in a close race to win our conviction. Hans Fromm’s hypnotic cinematography blurs the lines even further. Certain techniques, like dissolving from an unnatural to a natural world while zooming in quickly (e.g., a model of the city to the city itself, the inside of a train to the forest it’s speeding through), bolster the surreal like thematic quicksand.

Doubling down on the intimacy and enchantment, Petzold — known for keeping the big picture relatively hidden — immerses the viewer by directing the couple’s romance with a heavy dose of extreme close-ups. For example, he’ll situate a shot on the nook of Christoph’s neck in which Undine is burrowed, or their expressive, caressing hands, or the beaming fronts of their faces touching at the nose while they lay in bed.

To give us perspective, he offers the characterization of a relationship plagued by a past relationship through the metaphor of a historically scarred Berlin, imprinted by the past. To emphasize the eerie magical realism and muddy water, he displays their bodies crossed in various ways, calling on iconic shots from Persona to Minority Report yet reinventing them to carry new meaning here.

From the myth to the mastery of the medium, reinvention is the name of the game for Petzold in Undine. The story of the modern Undine is one of a woman trying to escape the chains of tradition and confront the phantom pain that binds her. Petzold gives more answers than normal, but as per usual, he leaves plenty up for interpretation, like the theme of falling asleep, or a strange catfish encounter, or the significance of the diver figurine, whose role as a voodoo doll is somehow as metaphorically on-the-nose as it is shrouded in mystery. That is Petzold at his best: plainly put yet inexplicable.

Here, Petzold reaffirms his unique ability to capture the spirit of missed connection and continues to develop the career-spanning spell of dark, alluring mystery he uses to seize his audience’s attention. Likewise, the lead couple reminds us that few actors have ever displayed such mystifying and magnifying chemistry onscreen. With a masterwork in Transit already under their belt, and what might be another in Undine, Petzold, Beer, and Rogowski are only a collaboration or two from having to file for supergroup status.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.