Patrick Preziosi on Christian Petzold’s ‘Undine’ (2020)
Lest one confuses Christian Petzold’s muted fairytale, Undine, as an unceremonious departure from the director’s previous work, it’s best to remember that his filmography is populated by phantoms. Confused identities, personified memories, literal ghosts, all things spectral proliferate across the German director’s career. Intriguingly, it hints at a gentle-prankster streak, more concerned with the subversive possibilities of romance than the presupposed dourness that occasionally dogs him. Like Hitchcock, James M. Cain, and Carnival of Souls (1962) before it, Petzold transposes the myth of Undine while incorporating a perennial concern with the intricacies of German history, resulting in one of the director’s more straightforward—though no less affecting—acknowledgements of a previously peripheral supernaturalism.
Already in conceit, Undine implies a dense academism smacking its head against the source material. But reservations fall away as soon as Petzold opens in intimate proximity to the titular character’s face, an orienting emotional center embodied by Paula Beer. As Hanns Fromm’s crystalline cinematography drinks in Undine’s restless expressions, it comes together that she’s being broken up with by the preppy, caddish Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), right before she has to cross the street from the café to her job as a historian and lecturer for the city, with a focus on the architecture of a reunified Germany. Between the cracked voices and fidgety awkwardness, a dramatic breakdown is teased; instead, Undine matter-of-factly intones, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” Johannes’ silent response reads that yes, he’s aware of these relatively unspecified terms that spell out his death. Undine leaves him at the café as she hurries to her work presentation, and as she gets a quick view of the veranda where she left Johannes from a conveniently located window, she finds that he’s taken flight.
Beer plays this suffered betrayal with a guarded dignity, and although she adopts the airs of the omniscient guide for a spoken-tour through a miniature model of Berlin, Petzold and Fromm telegraph her attentiveness for work as the camera develops an internal rhythm of cutting, zooming, and fading between Undine and the dioramas. Her self-possession belies any visible heartbreak, and her talk of a Berlin under perpetual construction already layers itself snugly atop the central romance, soon to ensue from this very moment.
In a meet-cute that firmly squares itself opposite the fretful chance encounters of its predecessors, Undine trots out Christoph (Franz Rogowski), moony-eyed and smitten is he with the tour guide he’s just seen speak. In one of the first numerous magical-realism flourishes, a toy industrial diner in a café’s aquarium murmurs Undine’s name, before the glass gives way, and she and Cristoph are awash in water and glass. Cristoph gingerly plucks a few shards from Undine, an act of intense and sudden familiarity that then allows for Petzold to indefectibly pick up well into the now-couple’s obvious honeymoon phase, while forgoing anymore pursuit.
The swooning romance that ensues is intriguingly befitting—if somewhat discombobulating—for a director who retroactively dubbed his preceding trilogy of films “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems”. Cristoph himself is an industrial diver, one who repairs the operative machinery of dams and bridges, and is therefore unwittingly, elementally, bound to Undine, who’s presumably born from the sea herself. They do a dive together on one of their dates, where he takes her to a collapsed bridge beam he’d found previously, which amongst other things, bears a scrawling of her name. Before Cristoph can reap the rewards of such an incidental gesture, he’s all alone in the lake, Undine’s diving gear ominously floating sans its owner. The wielding here of the shadowy negative space—where the emptiness is as paramount to the scene as what’s truly visible—once again brings Petzold’s professed adoration of John Carpenter to fruition. Whatever myth-adjacent projections one may have about Undine are moderately confirmed when Cristoph spots her swimming alongside the Gunther, the oversized catfish who resides in the lake. After being dragged ashore and revived (notably to the rhythm of “Stayin’ Alive”, which becomes something of the couple’s song), Undine asks to be revived again; “at the hotel,” responds Christoph.
This erotic and emotional hunger sustains and smolders: the two lovers often walk in full-bodied embraces, with their heads pressed into each other’s navels; goodbyes are prolonged and often culminate with hands pressed up against the pane of a train-window. Such ardour is a full-180 from Beer, Rogowski, and Petzold’s last film together, Transit (2018), whose parlance was one of circuitous coupling and recoupling, as governed by the external factors of a snowballing, fascist-abetted wartime. Undine isn’t some inoffensive adult romance, as evidenced by the topic of Germany’s perpetual physical reconstruction, itself a heady analog to the numerous suitors the mythic Undine cycles through, and their deathly fate, should their faithfulness flag. Instead, the lectures and their subjects provide scaffolding for otherwise generic tenets of modern-day romance: letting go, moving on, new beginnings, and so forth.
It’s not a perfect marriage of themes, but Petzold is careful not to overstate the parallels he’s drawn, with Undine’s presentations constructed as mini detours throughout the intermittently chronicled relationship. Such as when a last-minute snafu befalls Undine with an assigned talk on a palace she’s not prepared for: as she sits in a pose of entrenched studiousness—multiple open books, an open computer, murmuring the necessary facts back to herself—Christoph arrives at her door. When later that night it seems like they’ll be swept up once again in their mutual desire, Cristoph interrupts and implores that Undine read him what she’s written so far. The two traipse the apartment and then cocoon themselves in a duvet on the balcony, all to the soundtrack of a historical city planning lecture. As mentioned, the thematic foundation provides a fascinating counterpart to the relationship (with more than a touch of the similarly extracurricular-minded Alain Resnais), but this very moment is a twin success, simply acknowledging the overwhelming sexiness of a shared interest.
Still, this romance isn’t on solid ground, with the second half bringing forth much of the latent mythological violence of the first. Petzold liberally shifts moods as logic dissipates further, his referential palette courting everything from De Palma (a gracefully enacted murder in a backyard pool) to his own Yella (2007). What threads this more expansive methodology together is the destabilising circumstances that begin to accumulate, the weight of Cristoph and Undine’s love pushing back against the impossibilities inherent to their relationship. The stop-start final act still lays out numerous opportunities for their own reunification, but considering its own formalism plays like one extended sigh, the outcome, like the best of any fable, is welcomely foreseeable.
“Undine” is playing as part of the 58th New York Film Festival.
Director Christian Petzold
Writer Christian Petzold
Cinematographer Hans Fromm
Editor Bettina Böhler
Cast Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz
Duration 90 minutes