German filmmaker Christian Petzold has a track record of creating thought-provoking, intelligent, and ambitious films such as Barbara (2012) and Transit (2018). In Undine, he re-teams with his Transit co-stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski in a film that’s more fable or fairy tale than conventional storytelling. If forced to label, we might go with Fantasy-Romance-Drama-Mystery.
The film opens with a very uncomfortable break-up scene between Johannes (Jacob Matschentz) and Undine (Ms. Beer). When he says they are done, she responds, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” While researching the name Undine, I stumbled upon the 1811 German fairy tale of a water nymph by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet, which clearly inspired Petzold. The story has some similarities to “The Little Mermaid,” itself a Danish fairy tale originally written by Hans Christian Anderson. It helps to know all of this upfront to prevent some of the frustration that goes with deciphering what is real and what is imagined.
As one would imagine, water is a recurring element throughout – beginning with Undine’s chance and unusual café meet-cute with Christoph (Mr. Rogowski). The two find themselves attracted and connected after being drenched. Christoph is an industrial diver, so water is a part of his life…as is ‘Big Guenther,’ the legendary giant catfish he spots while on a job. Undine is a historian who holds sessions for tourists during which she recounts the architectural evolution and urban sprawl of Berlin over the past centuries, by utilizing scale models of the different eras. We also learn that “Berlin” means marsh, or a dry place in the marsh…yet another water-related aspect.
Ms. Beer, who was so good in Frantz (2016) and Never Look Away (2018) continues her fine work, and reuniting with her Transit co-star, Mr. Rogowski (Victoria, 2015) works out beautifully, as they have a nice rapport. Mr. Petzold’s film has a supernatural element and is dreamlike at times, and though I’ve used the “fairy tale” description, it’s clearly a very high concept film for grown-ups…and there is enough humor (“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees) to offset the doomed relationships and Undine’s return to her natural element. It’s quite a trip for those who are up for it.