In Undine, the new film by Christian Petzold, a fable of love inspired by the aquatic nymph is unexpectedly layered with a detailed history of the urban development of modern Berlin. Or perhaps this history does make sense, since Berlin, like Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp, and what lies beneath each city always seems a latent, albeit usually metaphorical, threat. This strange mix of story and history should come as no surprise to fans of the director, who by now should be used to his frequently subtle layering of unresolved German political tensions into his sleek, cerebral revisions of genre storytelling. But in Undine this is not layered, it is literally said: the titular character (Paula Beer, who played the mystery woman of the director’s last film, Transit) is a historian and public guide for the city’s history, and we hear several abbreviated bursts of exposition combined with caressing camera movements across scale models of the city showing pre- and post-reunification edifices, as well as an idealized display of East Berlin. What does this have to do with a love story, one might ask? The film in fact opens on the face of Undine, registering pain and sorrow, an emotional surprise and devastation that could only imply that she’s being broken up with. “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you, you know that,” she tells the man, an immaculately groomed yuppie; a euphemism, perhaps, but the first sign that her name and the film’s title may be more than a casual reference to the figure of the water nymph who impossibly strives for a relationship on land.
Nearly as soon as she’s left by a man, she is found by one: Christoph (Franz Rogowski, the refugee also from Transit) follows Undine after hearing her lecture and being ensorcelled by her tales of Berlin, and they end up—don’t ask how—under a shattered aquarium, in an unexpected reference to De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, with a dash of the dreamy waterplay of Femme Fatale. Christoph is a diver, of course. At his job, he plumbs below the watery depths; and she, named after a water creature, presides over city models—each drawn to a field not their own. Their romance is evoked expertly by Petzold in exact but rich and supple gestures: each embrace, heads pressed, hands held, carries with it the sweetness of early love. Their romance is lovely, but in its subtly uncanny spareness, its lack of details and exposition, we know we’re in for a different kind of story. In fact, the film glides along with the frictionless quality of a fairy tale, and in a strange irony, we are bombarded with details about Berlin but not about the people whose tale we’re watching. The point hits, eventually: Our heroine and hero, their love story, and their eventual struggle with love, is but part and parcel within a larger construct: that of Berlin; that of a reunified Berlin; that of a reunified Germany. Undine’s talks are all about the old city embracing the new; the East of the city being absorbed into the West; an old building demolished (creating “an amputation, a phantom limb,” as Undine describes it, in the city center) and then rebuilt as if it were the old building restored.
These are the contents of her lectures. In her life, she is left by one love and finds another, but that love is mysteriously troubled by both the past and the future. Can relationships be analogous to cities, to nations, to ideologies, with all their deep histories, brutal ruptures, and attempts to mend and rebuild? After nearly drowning on a romantic diving expedition, after which Christoph administers mouth-to-mouth, Undine coyly requests, “Can you revive me again?” These are the questions Petzold poses by so aggressively fitting into his characteristically subdued and haunting tale such direct political exposition and context. Whether it works for you or not is another question. Part of the problem may be Beer, who is a fine actress but fails to have that magical something that gave Petzold’s regular Nina Hoss (Yella, Phoenix) an entrancingly independent and unpredictable singularity. In Transit and Undine, Beer seems to be a regular and well-fitted part of the story; Hoss, like a Rivette heroine, always seemed to be within and without the narrative she was stuck in, which lent her films on an actorly level the slight distanciation brought to genre storytelling by Petzold’s direction. (Still, and to speak of extra layers, the reunion of the actors that romanced in Transit gives the relationship here its own knowingly ghostly echo.) Part of the problem may be the scenario, which changes perspectives a few times and like several De Palma films, chops its ending into several denouements of fantasy and reality, no doubt deepening a simple story, but unfortunately disrupting the flow and thwarting the impact such a fairy tale should—and seems intended to—have. But Undine’s pleasures are many, not the least of which being the sincerity of its love story, and it is quite refreshing to find this director bringing his silken, slow-burn approach to a romance, placing love in the capable hands of a sublime craftsman.