Christian Petzold’s latest venture Undine is another delve into Germany past and present, in a film that blends myth and reality into an intriguing — if occasionally uneven — tale of love.
Rather than examining the violence of German history (as explored in his previous film Transit), Petzold turns his attention to the myth of the undine — a feminine character from various sources including the writings of Ovid, which was eventually transformed in European literature into a type of water nymph.
In modern day Berlin, city historian Undine (Paula Beer) gives talks on the city’s architecture to various tourist groups. When industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) attends one of her talks he becomes enamoured with this mysterious woman who harbors a quiet intensity. Undine, still reeling from an acrimonious break up falls quickly in love with him and the two begin a relationship.
Their passion and chemistry cannot be denied, and a whirlwind romance ensues. They snuggle into each other’s arms, and kiss passionately on train station platforms. Beer and Rogowski have an easy, yet intense chemistry that makes this love story between two wandering souls heartfelt and true in every beat. But there is something mythical abut Undine, something that places her out of time with this modern world and into a realm that skirts between reality and a dream. When Christoph takes her on a dive to see the spot on a dam where her name is inscribed, she becomes detached from him. Her equipment is slowly shed, dropping down to the depth and Christoph can do nothing but watch — entirely helpless. She floats upwards, her body almost merging with that of the giant catfish that roams the depths.
From there, Undine begins to twist away from the more established linear narrative, then becoming something that is more magical in nature. While it may lose track of itself at times, the quiet romanticism of Petzold’s work is ever present.
As much as the film is about the central relationship between Undine and Christoph, it is also a love letter to the city of Berlin. The waterways and rivers, the buildings both standing and long demolished are given tender dedication in both Undine’s talks and the way they city is captured by the camera. Grey concrete walls and the city lights that stretch out into distance are imbued with a urban mysticism that only enhanced the unreality of Undine‘s premise.
While the payoff isn’t as neat as some of his previous films, it’s hard to deny the aching romanticism that each frame of Undine exudes.
Undine screened as part of the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival 2020 between October 12th and 15th
by Rose Dymock