Christian Petzold’s “Undine” begins with a breakup. Framed tightly on the face of lead actor Paula Beer, we soak up the information as she does. However that is no odd separation, and as jilted lovers go, Undine’s removed from typical. Her title betrays what units her aside, though within the huge realm of mythological entities, undines are hardly the well-understood creatures that Petzold’s revisionist modern fable assumes (not in America, not less than). Because of this, this overripe romantic tragedy — which represented the Berlin Faculty in competitors on the Berlin Movie Competition — received’t have the identical influence overseas because the three essential darlings that preceded it, “Barbara,” “Phoenix” and “Transit.”
“When you depart me, I’ll need to kill you,” Undine tells Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who has beckoned her to their typical café, throughout the road from the Berlin Metropolis Museum, the place she works as a historian. That is the half in water sprite folklore when issues sometimes flip darkish. To our eyes, Undine seems to be human (Beer is big-eyed and beautiful, and he or she performs the scene with shocking subtlety, contemplating that an operatic response would have been affordable for one whose lover has doomed them each). Although the movie doesn’t clarify it explicitly, Undine was a water sprite by origin, and as such, she was solely capable of obtain her current kind by falling in love with a person — one who should stay devoted to her or else forfeit his life.
By starting at this level, Petzold has left out the attractive a part of the story, not less than as it’s often relayed in literature and the humanities — and, on very uncommon event, in movie (as in Neil Jordan’s Irish “Ondine”). Like Hans-Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, undines lengthy to stay amongst people, and real love makes that potential. Now, the query turns into: Is Petzold’s heroine obliged to meet her future? (Should she kill Johannes?) Or is there one thing she will do to change it?
Wanting again by means of Petzold’s oeuvre, we see that his heroines share a model of the undine ambition: They, too, wish to lead a life — free from tragedy, oppression and the shadows of 20th-century German historical past. Few male administrators of Petzold’s stature have dedicated themselves so deeply to women-centric narratives. With “Undine,” the classical-minded helmer returns to the current, whereas remaining anchored to a feminine POV. His Undine doesn’t want to return to the lake from which she got here. Though virtually actually a “fish out of water,” she appears to have adjusted nicely to life on land: Undine holds a good job, inhabits a contemporary Berlin residence and spends her days studying concerning the metropolis — one whose sophisticated city historical past occupies an inordinate quantity of the movie’s in any other case economical run time.
Johannes has betrayed her, however earlier than she will even discover time to grieve, Undine meets an industrial diver named Christoph (Beer’s “Transit” co-star Franz Rogowski), who sweeps her off her toes in an sudden — and really moist — method. Christoph couldn’t be much less like Johannes. He’s candy, and mawkish, and dedicated to the purpose of being clingy, all of which the film idealizes over the course of a gushy half-hour courtship. Christoph has been working in a lake close to Wuppertal, Germany, the place he comes face-to-face with a large catfish — a superb signal that he’s not simply intimidated by underwater creatures, maybe.
Christoph recollects having seen Undine’s title stenciled on one of many historical arches beneath the floor, and he takes her diving there on a date. In response to undine legend (or the movie’s press notes), “Ought to she come again into contact together with her component after her marriage, she should return to it.” However Undine is already breaking the principles, and Christoph appears to symbolize a loophole. Or possibly she’s her personal exception, since Petzold tends to not outline his heroines by means of their relation to males, however slightly by way of their power and resourcefulness. Might his Undine really be free from the curse of co-dependence?
Frankly, making an attempt to parse how Petzold’s “Undine” stacks up towards mythology that many audiences don’t know to start with appears like one thing of a idiot’s errand. Higher to let the romance wash over you. Savor the best way that Christoph reveres her intelligence. At one level, he interrupts their lovemaking to flatter her mind, insisting that she check out her newest speech on him. “You say such intelligent issues, and in a stupendous method,” he tells her in all sincerity.
If Johannes represented the seemingly inevitable infidelity of man, Christoph serves as a humble counter-example. However the film isn’t able to want them “fortunately ever after,” and when Johannes resurfaces on the film’s halfway mark, we are able to really feel the plot kick into gear: Undine should take care of unfinished enterprise, and in so doing, danger shedding Christoph. She’s a creature of the water, and as such, a swimming pool appears an inexpensive place for Johannes to get his reckoning. The scene appears like one thing out of a late-night cable film, minus the unearned nudity, although “Undine” returns to its extra enchanted tone for the ultimate reel, during which Christoph will get caught up within the film’s ill-defined curse.
It could assist enormously if Petzold had, in some unspecified time in the future, managed to articulate the principles that govern Undine and her type, in order that audiences would possibly admire how he intends to interrupt them — and naturally, the best way during which she merely can not overcome her destiny. There’s a stylistic and narrative magnificence to Petzold’s method, with its clear lensing and repeated use of a single piece of music (the rolling piano Adagio from Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974), that implies restraint, the place a queer filmmaker may need propelled issues into camp territory. In a method, it’s a disgrace that “Undine” stops brief, because the materials feels skinny, and the assertion as murky because the lake to which the digicam in the end returns.