‘Undine’ Mixes Myth and Magic

Petzold’s newest film is also his most accessible


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Of the recent generation of German filmmakers informally known as the Berlin School, Christian Petzold is arguably the most fascinating and mysterious.

The surfaces of his films are often calm, cool and collected, but at their best, poignant emotions trickle out at unexpected moments. He also tends to apply this coolly impassioned style to modernized versions of older works of art. His 2007 film Yella, for instance, borrowed the premise of the 1962 American horror film Carnival of Souls for a meditation on the corroding effects of capitalism in 21st-century Germany. And while based on a French novel, his 2014 historical drama Phoenix could also be said to have more than a touch of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo in its plot, which hinges on facial and psychological reconstruction. 

With his latest film, Undine, finally making its way to U.S. theaters starting June 4, Petzold makes his biggest leap yet — into the realm of myth — while still maintaining his signature precision. The result is his most accessible, and quite possibly his richest, work yet. 

Mythological origins

Or at least, it’s accessible if you know something about the myth it references. “Undine” refers to a water nymph, which 15th-century Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus theorized as a physical manifestation of water, one of his four proposed classical elements (the other three being earth, air, and fire). Later writers would elaborate on Paracelsus’s basic conception, most famously Hans Christian Andersen with his fairy tale The Little Mermaid, in which the eponymous half-human, half-sea creature is willing to give up her life in the sea for a human soul, which she can gain by marrying a human. 

That is what nearly happens to Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) in Petzold’s film. But in its opening scene at a cafe, we see Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) fessing up to cheating on her, with Undine threatening, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.” Johannes’s fate, however, is forestalled when Undine, not too long afterward at the same cafe, meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), himself an industrial deep-sea diver. They both fall in love, and the future looks bright for Undine’s chances at staying on Earth, until destiny reasserts itself through a series of unfortunate circumstances.

Balancing enchantment and the real world

Until then, though, the film’s storyline occasions some of the most purely romantic and even enchanting passages of Petzold’s career. The film’s underwater scenes in particular—one in which Christoph encounters a catfish; and another, more ominous sequence with Christoph and Undine diving together—exude a vividly fantastical feeling amid a naturalistic surface. 

There is an intellectual side to Undine that adds a hefty real-world dimension to the film. Outside of her mysterious mythological origins, Undine moonlights as a freelance guide for the Senate Administration for Urban Development in Berlin, and Petzold features fairly lengthy scenes of her not only giving her tour spiel, but also practicing her lectures both privately and in front of Christoph. This becomes a form of bedroom talk in his presence. 

The presentations tantalizingly suggest another theme hovering in the background. Just as Berlin is quite possibly destined to remain stuck in its 18th-century past through some of its current architectural reconstruction projects, Undine herself is trying, through her romantic adventures, to look ahead in her life on land and stave off what may ultimately be an inevitable return to the sea. 

Escaping destiny

Many of Petzold’s previous main characters, in fact, are trying to outrun their destinies. His 2000 debut feature The State I Am In zeroes in on Jeanne, the daughter of a fugitive left-wing terrorist couple, who yearns to break free from her parents’ clutches even as her rebellious actions threaten their collective safety. The title character of his 1980-set 2012 film Barbara is also trying to break free, not from parental figures, but from the infamous German secret police, the Stasi. Georg, the German refugee protagonist of Petzold’s previous film, Transit—also starring Undine stars Rogowski and Beer—is also trying to flee forces of repression: in his case, Paris under a fascist state. 

As ever in Petzold’s world, however, forces larger than one individual intervene when least expected or desired. Petzold echoes that fatalistic sense of inevitability through his own fastidiously neat filmmaking style. That, however, doesn’t mean the films themselves are cold or bloodless. Such is the mysterious magic of his films, an aesthetic that reaches a wondrous zenith in Undine. 

‘Undine’ draws on a water-nymph myth made famous by Hans Christian Andersen

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Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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