Writer/director Christian Petzold’s “Undine” opens with a conversation, the kind of conversation that most viewers will immediately recognize, and the kind that the titular protagonist (played by Paula Beer) clearly dreads. Undine is sitting across from her boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), at an outdoor café, and he is breaking up with her. He’s met someone else. But amidst the pleading for him not to do this, Undine asks Johannes something unusual: if he is aware that if he leaves her, she will have to kill him.
Petzold based his film on the Undine myth, which dates back to Greek mythology circa 1566 and has taken many forms since then, including Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s fairytale of the same name and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” The myth essentially boils down to this: Undine is a water sprite who takes human form, but must return to the water if she comes into contact with it, and her lover must die should he leave her for another. Petzold twists this myth, however, adding another dimension to it. While waiting for Johannes to return to her (he doesn’t), Undine—who works as a historian specializing in Berlin’s urban development—has a chance encounter with a diver named Christoph (Franz Rogowski). They fall for each other almost immediately, and Undine seizes this new chance at love to defy her curse, which dictates that she must kill Johannes and return to the sea. But it isn’t long before that curse catches up with her.
“Undine” is firmly set in the real, modern world, but it has an otherworldly quality to it from the start. Perhaps that is because Petzold relies so heavily on symbolism as opposed to the concrete to tell this story, but I think it’s a bit more than that. There’s an ethereal quality to many of the scenes, but particularly the ones where we follow Christoph and Undine underwater. The underside to this old city is quiet and haunting and beautiful, and contrasts nicely with the ever-evolving city above the water. Petzold has noted that Berlin is a city “built on swamps” and that it is “erasing more and more of its own history,” and having the Undine character, who comes from this ancient world, work as a lecturer on the subject of the city’s development, is a wonderful bridge between these two worlds.
But much of the film’s success also has to do with its lead performances. Beer and Rogowski, who previously costarred in Petzold’s 2018 film “Transit,” are captivating together. Beer exhibits a maturity that reaches far beyond her 26 years of age, and both have faces that say more than words ever could. They fit so nicely together that we believe how they are immediately drawn to each other in the way that we almost always only see in fairytales. Their meet-cute is of the sort that most filmmakers would play up the slapstick aspect, but Petzold turns it into something serious and profound. When they are happy, it is the height of romance, and the way that Petzold’s camera lovingly captures them, frequently close-up, staring directly into each other’s eyes, makes them and their surroundings appear magical. But when Undine’s past catches up to her, they are the height of tragedy, and great sacrifice is required on Undine’s part to save them both. She may be a mystical creature, but her being forced to confront her past before she can look to the future is something that many of us have to face.
“Undine” is occasionally ambiguous, not so much in a frustrating way, but in that way that invites the viewer to interpret what they are watching in their own way. It’s difficult to put into words what exactly makes “Undine” so enchanting, but Petzold fills his interpretation of the myth with beauty and longing and sadness, as well as a sliver of hope that we can defy our circumstances to carve out a new path. “Maybe my heart skipped a beat, but then it started beating again under your hand.”
“Undine” opens in select theaters and will be available to watch on demand on June 4. Runtime: 91 minutes. Not rated.
Review screener courtesy IFC Films.