Christian Petzold is coming off of two masterpieces in Phoenix (2014) and Transit (2018), where his refined classicism and his historical (film and otherwise) referents crystallized into a concentrated vision that fits neatly in combination with his fantastic talent for dramatic orchestration. 2020 brings Undine, a film based on the classic German fairytale of a water nymph who marries a German knight in order to gain a human soul.
He has once again enlisted Transit collaborators Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, as Petzold updates the stories core components into present day Germany, where Undine now works as a lecturer on Germany’s urban development and her eventual love interest works as an industrial diver. Transit existed in between time periods, simultaneously clashing indications of WWII era dangers with contemporary echoes of the refugee crisis, and in doing so created a liminal push and pull effect that destabilized a viewer’s perspective and provoked a kind of contention with a linear view of history. This subtle intellectual veneer is key to Petzold’s work, he is a graduate of the ‘Berlin School’ of contemporary German filmmakers who attended the German Academy of Film and Television in Berlin along with accomplished directors such as Angela Shanelec and Thomas Arslan, where their films are all at least somewhat focused on the perturbed societal transitions of a reunified country. Petzold separates himself through a dedication to fiction, an intense passion for a classical storytelling that emerges through the more conceptual aspects of his work, and one that finds a very direct expression through this contemporary fairytale.
Undine begins with a breakup, as she sits at a café with her boyfriend stumbling through explaining his love for another woman, much to her dismay. It feels typical, even blandly so: the woman cries, the man’s face is concerned but mostly uncaring, but things begin to shift immediately upon Undine’s declaration to her (now) ex-boyfriend: “If you leave me I’ll have to kill you.” The statement does nothing to deter her ex, as he does leave her, but an uncertainty hangs over her words, does she really mean it? Further complications: we are now inside the café after one of Undine’s lectures, she stares intently at a fish tank, the sound starts to feel submerged, and one lecture attendee named Georg asks her for a coffee. All of the sudden the tank ruptures and Undine is on the ground with Georg, covered in water, the protestations of a café employee drowned out as they look into each other’s eyes and he picks small pieces of glass out of her blouse. The film builds off of this and dives headfirst into romance, Undine and Georg fall deeper and deeper in love as they spend more time together and the filmic time becomes languid, similar to the feeling that one gets in the scenes of Georg working underwater as a diver.
Petzold typically has his characters navigate some sort of ruins, whether they be personal or historical, and here he has Undine burst through the potential ruins of her broken previous relationship and into an almost surrealistically determined new love. So now, similar to the fairytale, it is as if she is gaining a new soul. These romantic scenes are always meshed in between Undine’s lectures, focusing on Germany’s urban expansion and the origins of the architecture present particularly in Berlin. She remarks on how Berlin’s founding is somewhat of a mystery, how the name Berlin means marsh, and how the city’s expansion was affected by the scars not only from period of Nazi rule, but also the fracturing and subsequent reunification of East and West Germany. The dominant idea is that the architecture has a sense of history, these buildings tell stories even when updated. In a telling line that betrays a key idea of Petzold’s conception of this film, Undine notes that a tenet of modern architectural theory is that form follows function, classic architecture can be repurposed to fit modern needs while retaining the old magic inherent to its design. This can be directly applied to the film, as Petzold repurposes a classic myth, updating its function to mold with his ideas with regards to German urban development, while retaining the magic of the tale through his surrealistic signifiers.
A brief glimpse at Undine’s old boyfriend during a romantic walk on a bridge interrupts the film’s romantic progression, and now the emergent uneasiness present throughout comes to the fore as things start to go wrong. Georg is now mad at Undine for simply looking towards her old boyfriend, and then gets into a near fatal accident while diving. The languid progression becomes harsher and more fractured, a series of quick discontinuous cuts on Georg’s hospital bed becoming the prime example. The fairytale now re-emerges, and Undine fulfills her promise to her ex-boyfriend and kills him, returning into the lake after. In this part of the film and the eventual epilogue, Petzold’s typical refusal to explicate or allow his ideas to speak loudly enough to translate into direct meanings becomes somewhat of a crutch. What was previously mysterious now feels studied and telegraphed, even in the sudden jump ahead in the epilogue, one misses the previously listless romantic progression of the first half. However, even with these issues, the final scene is astonishing, set in pure early morning dark blues, as Georg makes an anguished cry out to Undine, unsure if what he is doing is madness or following a lover’s instinct. The last gesture towards mythology an anguished cry of loss.
Petzold is one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, so even if this film doesn’t live up to the heights of Phoenix or Transit, it doesn’t appear to be reaching as high, and even in its smaller aims, it touches on his core thematic concerns while retaining his thrilling formalism. There really aren’t many films like this anymore, a fairytale noir attempting to provoke historical and mythological questions at the same time, all while willing to let things hang unexplained rather than condescendingly spelled out. Every film of Petzold’s is worth a watch, and this presents a new challenge to those looking to throw themself into his body of work.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars