“Undine” – Undone [MOVIE REVIEW]
“Undine,” the lyrically melancholic new film by writer/director Christian Petzold further solidifies his position as one of the great directors pursuing his craft in the twenty-first century. Lest you believe this is hyperbole, consider his previous three films, “Barbara,” “Phoenix”, and “Transit”. “Undine” is a worthy addition.
Ancient mythology tells the tale of the Undine, a female water spirit who can obtain an immortal soul only through the faithful love of a man. Should he betray her, he must die and she return to the water. It is the universality of this story that captivated Petzold, much as it captivated Hans Christian Anderson and Jean Giraudoux in different iterations.
We first meet Undine as she sits with her lover, Johannes, at their favorite café. He has just told her that he is leaving her for another. Self-satisfied, matter-of-fact, curiously lacking in empathy, he says he has to go. Troubled, uncomprehending, quietly tearful, she responds, “You said you loved me…forever. You can’t go. If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.” A scene that has played out just like this in thousands of “he done her wrong” films. But this is different.
Leaving him at the café where she has made him promise that he will wait for her, she returns to work where she is an historian about and for the city of Berlin, a city surrounded by lakes. Lecturing about the rebuilding of Central Berlin in 1991 after the reunification, she uses the architectural models set up in the building that show Berlin as it was at the turn of the twentieth century, as it was post World War II under Soviet influence, and as it became after 1991. Undine tells these visitors the mythology of Berlin through the history of the Humboldt Plaza which is where the Nazis held their book burnings, the East German government tore down many of the iconic buildings, and the Reunification reconstructed a city rising from the ashes. Rising from the ashes has been a theme in the previous Petzold films, as it is here.
Returning to the café a mere 30 minutes later, Undine searches for Johannes outside and inside to no avail. He has disappeared. Distraught, it is at this very moment that Christoph appears. He had attended the lecture and is smitten. This is not a “meet cute” moment but one of portent. He’s an industrial diver, a creature of the water, and circumstances explode (literally and figuratively) to bring them together. It should always have been Christoph and maybe, just maybe, he is her shelter from a future already foretold.
She is reborn in his eyes and his attention. But she has secrets and he, with all his openness, is unable to pry them free. He will just love her as she is, the love she always wanted and may have now found.
Petzold has filled the film with water images and metaphors. He has choreographed Christoph’s and Undine’s movements with the fluidity of undulating waves whether on land or in the lake where Christoph works. The whole movie is an exquisite dance of love, betrayal, love, and loss. But a question remains. How do you move on when ultimately the fates will prevent it? Because, in the end, after the initial betrayal, all is preordained. Destiny is at play.
The depth of this love story carries through to the end, a feeling within you that the ephemeral can be experienced; that something can be real even if it may not have happened. Or maybe it has. Perhaps the intensity of a short-lived love is enough to sustain a lifetime. Petzold’s previous three films were, as he described them, tales of “an impossible love, or a damaged one, or one that evolves.” This is a story of an enduring love.
Petzold has created an atmosphere that his long time cinematographer Hans Fromm captures throughout the bucolic scenery of the countryside where Christoph and Undine have their most untroubled moments, to the underwater world illustrating both the murky dangers awaiting the diver and the soft-focused wonder of a shared love through the undulating reeds. Fromm, working like a painter, helps bring the action to the forefront with a background that underscores their emotions. Bettina Böhler has edited the film seamlessly, blurring the line between the many time cuts allowing viewers to flow in rhythm to the love story that unwraps before their eyes.
And the actors! Paula Beer as Undine is indescribable in the combination of beauty and fierceness that underlies her vulnerability. As the callow Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) tells her that their affair is over, Petzold holds tight on Beer’s face as she goes from bewilderment, determination, fear, loss, and resolution, exhibiting both plasticity and hardness. Shortly thereafter, upon connecting with Christoph, we see that resolve melt into a tentative surrender, her eyes dark and questioning and her body language relaxing from the rigidity of her initial distrust. Throughout the film her face conveys the emotional distrust left by that initial betrayal by Johannes but it is her body that moves in contradiction to that fear. Her gait is confident even if her facial expression reveals a distrust in her own happiness.
Franz Rogowski (Christoph), who was the very embodiment of Existentialism in “Transit,” is here all trust and emotional openness. The depth of his feelings is found on his face, eyes that can be sparkling and sad at the same time. His surrender to Undine is in that wry smile that occasionally broadens like sunshine after a fog or a soft touch on her arm. Not a classically handsome man, his gaze is warm and penetrating, inviting you into his heart. How difficult to portray unconditional love and yet he does. Both he and Beer deserve major international careers.
In general, love stories are a dime a dozen. And yet, Petzold has given us one of incredible depth and universality. To experience “Undine” is to believe in the eternal nature of love, a love that survives mere mortality.
Opening June 4 at the Laemmle Royal, Town Center 5, and Playhouse 7. Also available on digital platforms and VOD.
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