Truth and Movies

Undine

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Christian Petzold

Starring

Franz Rogowski Maryam Zaree Paula Beer

Anticipation.

One of Europe’s most exciting filmmakers returns – with the first of a new trilogy no less.

Enjoyment.

Simultaneously baffling and completely lucid. A head scratcher and a soul shaker.

In Retrospect.

It takes a while for Petzold’s crafty genius to truly sink in.

Paula Beer plays a woman with a supernatural secret in this unconventional modern-day fairy tale.

Has there ever been a film in which a woman who also happens to be a hybrid water sprite gets really narked off when her boss bullies her into picking up some shift work for an absent colleague?

In the transfixing latest from German filmmaker Christian Petzold, mythology and mundanity coexist in a drab contemporary Berlin as Paula Beer’s coyly mysterious Undine meets very cute with Franz Rogowski’s guileless romantic Christophe and a whirlwind love affair plays out both above and below the water line. As with his previous film Transit, which fused together the trappings of a swooning wartime thriller and an urgent chronicle of European refugees in flight, Undine is a film which asks you to see things without showing them to you.

Rather than trowel on the cheapo CGI or, conversely, over-emphasise the story’s prosaic backdrop, Petzold simply tells his story and states his intellectual objectives by allowing multiple realms of fantasy and reality to happily coexist at once. Undine herself is introduced at a cafe where her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) threatens to leave her. If he does, she says she will be forced to kill him, a violent threat which barely registers.

When not having to be romantically compulsive as a mode of survival, Undine works as a lecturer for the city’s Department of Urban Planning, and there’s the element of a siren’s call to her lugubriously intoned orations about the storied evolution of Berlin’s municipal sprawl.

Christophe happens to catch one of these talks, and later bumps into Undine at the café where Johannes gave her the heave-ho. A strange accident leads the pair to be swaddled in each other’s arms and soaked to the bone, a cheekily contrived quasi-erotic set-piece that again offers a gaudy flashing signpost to Petzold’s earnest affection for classical melodrama.

An intense courtship leads to the discovery that Christophe also happens to be an industrial diver, and with this handy occupational overlap, Undine feels she may have met her soul mate. The feeling from the lovably unreconstructed and impulsive Christophe is most definitely mutual. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of a film whose petty eccentricities serve to gently distort the dynamics of what always seems to come across as a hot-blooded if eerily conventional human drama.

The point being made is that love forms an impregnable ring fence around such relationship staples as jealousy and insecurity, where not even the fantastical circumstances can complicate these primal urges. Both Beer and Rogowski commit to playing things completely down the line, allowing instinctual desires to lead them rather than openly exposing (and milking) anxieties about Undine’s identity.

There are many great filmmakers who are able to work magic with a low budget, but Petzold is surely one of great ‘less-is-more’ maestros on the scene. He is somehow able to channel the ornate, otherworldly romanticism of someone like Jean Cocteau without even a lick of make up or innovative camera trickery. There are twists and turns to this tale, but as with the majority of Petzold’s films, the narrative takes a backseat to the charge of ungovernable and ummutable passions.

Published 1 Apr 2021

Tags: Christian Petzold Paula Beer Undine

Anticipation.

One of Europe’s most exciting filmmakers returns – with the first of a new trilogy no less.

Enjoyment.

Simultaneously baffling and completely lucid. A head scratcher and a soul shaker.

In Retrospect.

It takes a while for Petzold’s crafty genius to truly sink in.

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