Needless to say my expectations for the new Christian Petzold film were through the roof. The German filmmaker’s last two movies, 2014’s “Phoenix” and 2018’s “Transit”, are both snugly among my favorites from the last decade. His latest “Undine” has finally come to the States courtesy of IFC Films. And while it might not pack the punch of his meatier predecessors, there’s still a lot to like about this beguiling romantic fantasy.
“Undine” is as enigmatic as it’s titular character; a movie that moves to the rhythms of a love story but that has much more simmering under its surface. It’s a fairytale of sorts that keeps one foot firmly planted in the real world while routinely blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. What story we get is built around a captivating yet elusive mystery that hints at the mythological and supernatural. But Petzold is a crafty filmmaker who blends an assortment of ideas underneath his film’s rather simple facade.
The movie opens on a woman named Undine (as played by new Petzold favorite Paula Beer), her very name hearkening back to an old European myth and offering us our first hint of what the movie may be going for. We see her sitting at a café getting the news from her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) that he has been unfaithful. He’s ready to end their relationship but she hits him with a inauspicious warning, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” It’s a startling caveat that could be born out of either heartbreak or obligation. Petzold takes his time revealing which.
Undine orders Johannes to wait at the café as she goes across the street to the city museum where she works as a historian and guide. There she gives talks to out-of-towners on the history of Berlin’s urban development, something that Petzold slyly sews into the fabric of his story. You can tell Undine has given her presentation countless times before, but this time her mind is clearly back at the café with Johannes. By the time she gets back Johannes is gone but she does meet Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver and underwater welder who attended and was taken by Undine’s talk.
After what turns out to be a soggy first meeting, a spark is ignited that quickly puts thoughts of Johannes out of Undine’s mind. Beer and Rogowski have a sparkling chemistry and their warm and simple romance, though clouded with a tinge of doom, takes Petzold’s story in a unique direction. When we first meet Undine she can barely hold back tears. With Christoph she gets to re-experience something akin to happiness as their romance unfolds through a series sweet and tender meetings.
But this is a Christian Petzold film meaning there is an underside to the story waiting to be unearthed. Several other of the filmmaker’s interests can be found throughout the movie such as his affection for history and having the past and present rub shoulders in a number of compelling ways. All of it together defies any traditional reading of the film which all but ensures this won’t be a commercial success. But fans of Petzold’s distinctive oeuvre will find plenty to admire even if his latest doesn’t reach the heights of his previous films.
“Undine” challenges its audience to wonder while allowing us plenty of room to make our own conclusions. The film’s restraint is both remarkable and curious. In one sense you can’t help but appreciate the quiet subtleties of Petzold’s storytelling and the trust he places in his audience. In another sense you can’t help but wish he had went deeper and pushed us even more. The emotional closeups, the beautifully framed shots of the city, the haunting blue-green underwater scenes – they all immerse us into a world as romantic as it is mystifying. And with Beer and Rogowski so perfectly rooted at the movie’s core, it’s hard not to get lost in Petzold’s wonderfully murky fantasy. “Undine” opens June 4th in theaters and on VOD.