NYFF20 REVIEW: Undine [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: July 2nd, 2020 (Germany)
    Studio: Piffl Medien / IFC Films / Sundance Selects
    Director(s): Christian Petzold
    Writer(s): Christian Petzold

If you leave, you have to die.

Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) laughs when Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) tells him he can’t leave her lest she be forced to kill him. He laughs because he’s read the myth of sea nymphs sharing her name and the fate those who love them suffer if they ever betray it. That’s not how the real world works, though. Couples fall in and out of love all the time. Men don’t walk to forest lakes and scream her name to satisfy the holes in their heart for someone who doesn’t love them back. Johannes didn’t spark this relationship and provide his partner with mortality only to witness as their love rendered him desirable and thus able to finally be with the woman he lamented. His life isn’t some silly fairy tale.

But what if it was? What if his Undine was the Undine and it was only her love that got his mind wandering onto Nora before succumbing to desire? And what if she were suddenly thrust into the role of jilted lover desperate for an affection she could no longer have? These are the types of hypotheticals that make for interesting revisionist takes on established lore and exactly the path that writer/director Christian Petzold decides to follow in order to leave his mark on the character as the latest interpretation of a subject that began with Empedocles in the 400s BC. Now in the twenty-first century, his Undine becomes too invested in the mortal world to simply fulfill her destiny and return to the water alone.

It helps that she’s barely an hour past Johannes’ cruel departure when new love literally falls into her life. His name if Christoph (Franz Rogowski) and he’s of the water too: an industrial diver welding turbines close to where Undine works as a museum historian lecturing international guests of the Senate Administration for Urban Development. She forgets her broken heart while he causes one (his co-worker Monika, as played by Maryam Zaree, has obvious feelings for him) en route to a potential happily ever after of weekend trysts, surprise visits, and a legitimate interest and appreciation of each other’s work and life. Christoph becomes a reason for Undine to let Johannes live and thus cheat her curse. Such selfish acts of Gods, however, always come with a price.

There’s also the possibility that this isn’t a fairy tale. Undine was never going to kill Johannes. The voice she heard before meeting Christoph was nothing more than the hallucination of sorrow. And any tragedy that might befall their union is merely the unfortunate circumstances of living life to the fullest. That doesn’t, however, mean Undine won’t believe she is a God. How much pain will she therefore be able to suffer before wondering if following her mythological rules is a necessity towards getting things back on track? Petzold uses the plausibility that make-believe, reality, and grief can each be layered atop one another to keep what’s going on shrouded in uncertainty so that we don’t just know where he’s going and lose the drama of unforeseen consequences.

Whether or not you believe he’s successful in keeping us in the dark will surely vary, though, since the plot is nowhere near as weighty as his oeuvre generally proves. It doesn’t actually matter which option he chooses because the end result won’t ultimately change. Undine will always be faced with the decision to continue living without love or make certain that those she loves can continue living without her. There doesn’t need to be a mystical veil where it comes to heartbreak or a path to murder. Maybe it will make the horror she’s capable of more palatable, but it won’t excuse the act itself regardless of her reasons or its aftermath. Undine’s love remains powerful either way since it remains hers alone to give.

Events progress rapidly as we’re thrown in during a break-up, whisked away to fresh romance, and taken almost instantly to the nightmare scenario that will force her hand. There’s little time to breathe besides the long scenes in which Undine is delivering or practicing her lectures about Berlin’s architecture and the city’s unique dynamic between past and present: something she is either an expert in because of her studies or because she lived through each of the eras that mark its history. Talk about façades arrives alongside notions that progress is an illusion—both of which can infer upon our questions about her origins and her fate as it concerns humanity versus immortality. She’s educating her tour while also perhaps pushing herself to an unfortunate conclusion.

Beer and Rogowski are both excellent at embracing their ample opportunity to truly be happy as opposed to the harrowing circumstances surrounding union within Petzold’s Transit. The final third of the runtime shifts things to a more somber air, but that inevitable bittersweet determination also works to remind us how glorious the moments their Undine and Christoph are together beforehand. With a breezy chemistry marked by easy smiles and constant physical touch, it’s not too difficult to know it’s all going to become too good to be true. That knowledge doesn’t lessen its effectiveness, though. It only leads us forward to experience the fall and wonder what good may still arise from its anguish. For once it’s Undine who faces temptation. For once it’s she who might lose.

[1] Paula Beer, Fotograf Christian Schulz, (c) Schramm Film – Paula Beer as “Undine” in Christian Petzold’s UNDINE. An IFC Films Release. Courtesy of IFC Films.

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