Undine (2021; Christian Petzold)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing in select cinemas and on VOD services.
“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.”
The mildly inscrutable Undine is my third Petzold experience, following the similarly admirable yet underwhelming Phoenix and Transit. However, it’s the first time I figured out why I can’t get over the hump with the celebrated German filmmaker.
In all three films, there is a dour gimmick that takes center stage in the story, from the risen doppelganger in Phoenix to the time-dislocated nature of Transit. With Undine, Petzold piles on the gimmicks, up to and including intimations of The Shape of Water-shaped fish-fucking. He also crams in multiple drownings, magic catfish and “GDR nostalgia,” with a lengthy examination of post-Wall urban planning in Berlin, all without breaking the flow of cerebral restraint that runs throughout the film. That’s weirdly impressive, but I’m still not sure I like it, as Undine feels both overdetermined and underrealized. “Thoughtful yet glacial” was how I summed up Phoenix and Transit, and Undine only etches those descriptors deeper in my mind.
“If you love someone, you have to tell the truth.”
Transit stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski also headline here. Beer stars as the title nymph, a glorified tour guide who mysteriously segues from one boyfriend to another. Rogowski plays an industrial diver who falls under Undine’s sway, starting with a bizarre meet-cute that involves an exploding aquarium. Throughout the film, Petzold teases his audience with questions about reality vs. fantasy vs. magic vs. madness in the least playful manner possible.
Beer is the best reason to see Undine, moving between vulnerability, sensuality, confusion and calculation, sometimes within the same scene.