With Undine, German auteur Christian Petzold returns with yet another fablistic, allegorical musing on modern German life that touches its toes just beyond the boundary of the real world as we live in it. But this one, after the era-transposed adaptation Transit and the transfixing post-WWII quasi-romance Phoenix, is perhaps his most rooted in lore (both fantasy and historical), his most otherworldly, and his most swoon-inducing. Here he uses the elemental myth of the water nymph to reflect romance and a national identity haunted by periods of transition, where the birth of something new doesn’t so easily mean the death of what came before.
Paula Beer returns to the Petzold fold as the titular Undine, a historian who delivers public lectures as a liaison of the state senate, detailing the evolution of Berlin as she guides her guests through a massive model. The past and present is presented in the display in brown and white to designate what the city once was and what it eventually became, with Undine relaying us through the interminable minutiae of bureaucracy that bridged the two. The path from one existence to the next can be examined, as if to explain how it is all one, but the two remain in stark contrast before our very eyes. And in turn, the same is true of Undine’s romantic life.
We are introduced to Undine at a cafe with her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who proceeds to call things off, too timid to leave his wife. Bluntly, Undine curses him to die if he cannot commit to her. Upon her return, Johannes has vanished and Undine meets Christoph (the ever dashing Franz Rogowski), sparking an immediate connection. This new love is created in the shadow of a former one, and the rules of Undine’s mythic existence will demand unexpected consequences for them both.
To watch Undine expediently but patiently unfold is to be reminded that Petzold is one of the slipperiest filmmakers in modern moviemaking. Again, Petzold crafts something grounded in the tangible and elevated by details just outside of reality. Here he equates a country’s evolving personality to the forces that tie us to former loves, mining spiritual truths about what in our soul refuses to let us fully move on. With a deep sense of sadness, Undine is about our resistance to impermanence and the unreliability of our own expectations, and it burrows into our human nature to understand how that manifests both inward and outward.
Perhaps this one is a bit more literal minded, too overly definitive in what we are meant to take away from it, but when it turns flinty and surprising in its final act, Petzold recaptures his quintessential melancholy notes that make his films so tough to quickly shake. Death is not as tidy as a building being replaced, just as one human cannot fulfill the ghost of another. For Petzold, we see in hazy overlapping visions that are tougher to reconcile, futile in forgetting. The work of a contemporary master confidently working in stride, Undine is a film to feel your way through, even if its a surprising journey whose thornier edges are sanded down by expected conclusions.