The great German director’s latest romance modernizes a fairy tale to striking, mystical effect.
Over the past decade, writer-director Christian Petzold has delivered three near-perfect features– 2012’s Barbara, 2014’s Phoenix, and 2018’s Transit. His work isn’t showy, but what he pulls off is challenging – making artfully crafted, sumptuously romantic stories focusing on lonely, easy-going characters finding connection with one another. His latest, Undine, follows in that tradition, and it’s one of his best.
Petzold has a record of taking premises that seem cliche-and rendering them moody, magical, mythical and surprisingly lyrical. In both Barbara and Phoenix, Petzold reinvented the story of a woman who falls in love with someone from her past. In doing so, the people and places became otherworldly. With Undine, he updates a romantic fable to the present day.
Undine is based on the fairy tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet, who also wrote Sangerliebe and a number of other novellas. It’s the story of Undine (Paula Beer), a shy, sensual, and sympathetic Berlin travel guide who spends the first ten minutes of the movie crying into her cappuccino. Her husband, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), has just dumped her after three years of marriage. When she tells him to meet her after work under threat of death, there’s an uneasy uncertainty to it. She wouldn’t really kill him, would she?
Before the audience can learn the answer, Undine runs into a deep-sea diver named Christoph (Franz Rogowksi) at the cafe where her husband left her. A fish tank bursts, knocking the pair on their backs, surrounding them with seaweed, sea urchins, and a whirlpool of flirtatious glances. They’re immediately drawn to each other – as if swept up by an unseen current, and Petzold quickly establishes the watery romance with statues of Poseidon and long, fluid shots of the Landwehr canal.
Petzold’s film operates on an elemental level; like the ocean itself, it washes over you, the dream sequences fading in and out like changing tides.
Water is omnipresent in Undine, including during its sex scenes. Undine and Christoph are addicted to water the way others are addicted to cigarettes, which might explain why Undine (the name given to water nymphs in Berlin) is so interested in the canals wrapping around the city. They have become her home, a hybrid of nature and nurturer that feeds her life and energy.
The water nymph/random guy odd-couple dynamic is familiar (The Little Mermaid, The Shape of Water), but the fish-out-of-water tropes are coupled with welcome, purposeful ambiguity. Undine plays out in unexpected ways, and Petzold, working with Fouquet’s source material, does’t offer easy answers. He keeps the story moving forward into deeper, hazier more mystical territory, and his homages to The Shape of Water (in a shot of seaweed) and Sansho the Bailiff (in a shot of Undine walking into the canal) are as stunning as they are transportive.
Petzold’s film operates on an elemental level; like the ocean itself, it washes over you, the dream sequences fading in and out like changing tides. Bach’s Concerto in D minor, BWV 974 swells and disappears in key moments, pianos, and organs blending with the atmospheric, often oceanic, sound design. Every element is designed to reflect Undine’s connection to water. It is worth noting that some choices, like Petzold’s approach to color, are more successful than others, such as the obvious use of fish tanks.
Petzold effortlessly, earnestly marshals performance, tone, and style. There are wonderous sequences where he lets the images and the actor’s faces do the talking, as when Christoph and Undine share a moment at the bottom of a canal, welding Undine’s name on a rusted sewer pipe. Like most of the film’s lyrical sequences, the moment culminates so quietly and so hauntingly that it’s overwhelming, infused with the director’s trademark anguish. Undine may be a love story, but anyone who has seen Barbara or Phoenix knows that there’s something darker lurking just beneath the surface.
Undine opens in theaters and on VOD on June 4th, 2021.