I was really drawn to see this because I’ve enjoyed two of Christian Petzold‘s previous work, Phoenix and Transit. The latter actually stars the same German actors: Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski. The underwater fantasy theme reminds me a bit of The Shape of Water, though this one doesn’t exactly involve a literal underwater creature. Apparently the story is loosely based on a German fairytale novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in which Undine, a water spirit, marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul.
The film is set in Berlin where Beer’s character Undine works as a guide for the city’s Urban Development project, which happens to be inside a museum. There’s actually a long scene where she gives historical narration about the city’s past and how it’s actually built on water. Just before that, Undine is in a café with her boyfriend Johannes who tells her he’s leaving her, at which point she tells him nonchalantly that she’d kill him if he does. But on the same day, she runs into a man named Christoph in the same café and the two embarks in a whirlwind romance.
Sometimes you watch a movie where you’re absolutely baffled by what’s going on, but it’s captivating enough you’re willing to go on a ride. Undine is such a movie, and up until the end, I still can’t quite figure out what it’s all about. Both leads are charismatic in an otherworldly way, which are such perfect casting for this movie. The scene where an aquarium tank explodes is both bizarre yet romantic. Undine and Christoph lie together on the floor, drenched in a pool of water amidst broken glass and dead fish. There’s a little diver figurine from that said aquarium that she takes with her, which has a mysterious connection to Christoph who works as an underwater welder who fix damaged underwater turbines. A lot of the dream-like fantasy elements happen when Christoph works underwater, such as when encounter a giant catfish nicknamed Big Günther, seeing Undine’s name written in concrete, and at times Undine herself swimming about as a mermaid-like creature.
The fact that this Berlin fairy tale is set in contemporary times and that the mythical water nymph looks like a typical female human and seemingly function like normal people adds to the decidedly discombobulating experience of this movie. Undine is shown interacting with her co-workers, preparing for work and dealing with relatable life/work issues, etc. but yet there is something that’s obviously ‘off’ about her. For the most part Undine is sweet, playful and even loving, but a scene towards the end certainly shows the darker side of this mysterious being. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say it seems jarring that a violent act is done in such a nonchalant way.
Are everything that happens real or are they in someone’s head? Petzold doesn’t exactly provide conclusive answers and that’s by design. There are parts that reminds me of Neil Jordan’s Ondine, which is more brooding and atmospheric, but shares a primary strength in the strong chemistry between the two romantic leads. I think the less concerned I was with trying to ‘get’ the movie, the more I was able to enjoy Undine for what it is. For one, I enjoy watching the almost innocent, playful nature of the romance, such as the goodbye scene on the train station. It’s always lovely to see on-screen couples being absolutely lovestruck in a genuine, non-cheesy way. I think it’s interesting too that Petzold uses music by Johann Sebastian Bach instead of hiring a contemporary composer, which gives that timelessness quality that fits with the central theme of past/present co-existing. While Bach is a Christian who have written plenty of sacred works, this film is devoid of spirituality or even the concept of God as a guiding principle.
In any case, I appreciate this movie but not swept away by it. Still, you could do so much worse than watching a Christian Petzold film with these two wonderful leads. Petzold remains a filmmaker I admire and I look forward to what he’ll tackle next.