Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber Director: Christian Petzold Screenplay: Christian Petzold Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz. Julia Franz Richter, Rafael Stachowiak, Anne Ratte-Polle, Gloria Endres de Oliveira and José Barros Distributor: IFC Films
The European fable about Undine, the beautiful water spirit who becomes human when a man falls in love with her, was given a modern twist back in 2009 by Neil Jordan in “Ondine.” (It’s also figured in animated films, specifically “The Little Mermaid” and “Song of the Sea.”)
Now writer-director Christian Petzold offers his take on the legend, and as one might expect from the maker of a string of unusual films—“Jerichow” (2008), “Barbara” )2012), “Phoenix” (2014) and “Transit” (2018)—it’s intriguing but unusual; for some it will be engrossing, for others frustratingly opaque.
It opens at a Berlin café, where a man named Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) is abruptly ending his affair with Undine Wilbeau (Paula Beer), a beautiful, imperious woman who brusquely tells him that if he leaves her, she will have to kill him. (The legend has variants—in one it will be Undine who suffers, in another the faithless lover.)
Undine then goes off to work, ordering Michael to wait for her to return. She’s a lecturer in a building across the courtyard, where she delivers talks to tourist groups on the architectural history of the city, using maps and elaborate scale models as props. After finishing she returns to the café, only to find that Michael has left.
As she looks intently at the aquarium that’s part of the décor, and especially the tiny figurine of a deep-sea diver that’s part of its display, however, Christoph (Franz Rogowski), approaches her, and before you know it, the aquarium has unaccountably shattered, leaving them drenched in water on the floor. As it happens he’s an industrial diver himself, tasked with checking out the underwater connections on local bridges, and it isn’t long before they’re passionate lovers.
Of course their romance cannot continue without complications, nor can “Undine” maintain an unadorned style. Christoph has an encounter, for instance, with a mammoth catfish in the murky water that carries a mystical feel. He and Undine go on a dive together, a surrealistic sequence that ends when she sheds her equipment and nearly dies. And when Michael reenters, the result is a weirdly understated but fatal encounter in a luminous swimming pool.
The film is clearly about overlapping—between the worlds of earth and water, times past and present, and species that belong to different realities–and the shift from one to the other. It ends not with clarity but ambiguity. And it is at once mysteriously evocative and curiously matter-of-fact. Appreciating it requires setting aside ordinary expectations. But if you can manage that, it can be oddly entrancing.
Much of its success derives from the magnetism between Beer and Rogowski, which is almost palpable. But the atmosphere that Petzold and his fellow craftsmen invest it with is equally important. Music is sparsely used, but the choices range widely, from pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s ethereal Bach to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” the latter used as a device to calculate CPR. It works surprisingly well, enhancing the skewed beauty of the parable and Hans Fromm’s elegant cinematography, which is straightforward yet can cast a bewitching spell. Merlin Ortner’s production design and Bettina Böhler’s editing are similarly unfussy but striking.
Petzold’s films are challenging but always worth taking on, and his use of folklore to illuminate his own obsessions is no exception.