Christian Petzold’s new film Undine is a curious German fairy tale, and one which as the title suggests has an air of mystery to it: ‘Undine’ means a female spirit or nymph that inhabits water. Undine is both a charming and unnerving tale exploring the murky, often hidden depths of love. Its charm comes not only from its lead, Paula Beer as Undine, but also the location of Berlin and its vast and varied suburbs. It is also the filmmaker’s ode to the city and its history.
Undine is a historian who gives lectures on the city’s architectural history at the Berlin City Models exhibition. After breaking up with her lover at the start of the film, revealing a contained rage, Undine encounters Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a deep water diver who attends her next lecture and seems instantly very taken with her. A love affair ensues that is knocked off course after Undine sees her former lover again, and events take a turn for the worse.
The supernatural feeling arises due to odd comments made by Undine as her lover tells her it’s over at the very beginning. There is also a dream-like scene when she and Christoph first meet that introduces their shared affinity to water. And there is a catfish in this too, that only Christoph seems to see. Little is actually known about Undine or Christoph. They appear to live day by day, unconnected to any past, except former love interests. Hence, Undine’s robotic recital of local history seems detached from her true inner personality, much like a disguise. The world appears to be their oyster to allow the relationship to flourish. It is this fairy tale quality with its underlying sense of doom that propels Petzold’s narrative forward.
Beer is as fascinating to watch as ever. She has an innocence to her that always shrouds an inner strength, and in this case, a myriad of secrets that is well suited to playing Undine. Her composure is only broken by her affectionate scenes with Christoph, allowing a sweet vulnerability and warmth to be exposed. However, her guard is soon back in place, which makes her character even more intriguing to watch and speculate on as to what destiny holds for her.
Rogowski’s uncanny resemblance to a ‘German Joaquin Phoenix’ is further emphasised by his passionate and over-attentive demeanour as Christoph. His carefree spirit matches that of Undine’s hidden one, which allows her to momentarily forget a love lost as they enter into an affair, seemingly without a care. We witness the dizzy heights of new love through the pair, the shared experiences they have as the relationship blossoms, leading to a quaint gift that Christoph gives Undine. But unlocked and potentially dark secrets threaten the status quo, and keep things simmering and unsettled.
Petzold’s timing and direction and his leads’ captivating performances are brilliant in sweeping the viewer up and transporting them through real and imaginary scenes, so much so, that the appearance of the catfish and the film’s emotive ending mask any questions we might have about what that sense of foreboding that was building up throughout was really all about? Indeed, it feels somewhat unexplored in the narrative, or simply left ambiguous so that the director does not have to address it. Undine is rightfully angry at another relationship that has hit the rocks, but why is she so full of rage to begin with when we first meet her? This mystery remains frustratingly open to interpretation – as does why seeing her ex again trigger such a raw response when she is most certainly in love with Christoph?
That said, there is a beautiful quality to two characters who have the freedom to explore life and love that Petzold’s scenario wonderfully permits. This cinematic escapism from a real-life world on lockdown at present is alluring and indulgent. Undine acts as a true modern-day fairy tale well worth being drawn into, regardless of some lost chances of closure in its narrative.