Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Paula Breer, Franz Rogowski, Jacob Matschenz
In Christian Petzold’s latest, Undine, the tension between dreams and reality rarely leaves the screen. We can be steeped in the ostensibly ‘real’ – the notion of day-to-day truth that Petzold recreates with his characters and settings – only for these parameters to shift. Second guessing becomes the order of the day, and the lines that ought to be rigid become porous.
Undine (Paula Breer) works in an arena of confirmed fact. A lecturer specialising in Berlin’s urban development, her work and presentations are anchored in historical record, and she utilises stunning 3D models to visually convey the living history of the city. Stealing herself from an upsetting breakup, she is also a volatile and possibly dangerous person, who five minutes into the picture has already threatened to kill the man who has just unceremoniously jilted her.
Looking into the 3D model during her presentation, she sees him within it (like how Wendy Torrance spies her husband Jack within the model hedge maze in The Shining). This sends her flying out to confront him, only to find herself in a eerily deserted restaurant where she meets industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski). The dreaminess of this sequence is only heightened by the predominance of a model deep sea diver in a fish tank that explodes all over the pair; a sequence of pregnant eroticism that also boldly suggests that Undine has conjured her new acquaintance into being by sheer force of will.
In Christoph’s own life as a diver, we find a similar sense of questioned reality. While on his current assignment he encounters a mythic giant catfish nicknamed Gunther. His colleagues don’t believe him, and its only the visual evidence on his camera feed that settles the question. Still, we as viewers aren’t sure what the video is going to show. Petzold already has us under his thumb, questioning the realities that these characters inhabit.
Unnerving moments persist. When Christoph takes Undine into his underwater world, she seems to disappear, only for him to find her adrift, unconscious on the surface. An act of CPR conveys the depth of his connection to her already, along with a death-tinged eroticism that conjoins this scene with the film’s opening one. In Undine, romance and sexuality are entwined with mortal peril.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Undine is a modern day re-imagining of a myth; a fairy tale of a water nymph that Petzold has situated in contemporary Berlin. But the theme of reconstruction is ever-present in Undine’s work as she tells of the city’s reunification, now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Breaking the totem statue of a diver – an established icon for Christoph – Undine glues it back together and we’re invited to worry whether the incident constitutes a premonition. When she next sees him, Undine embraces Christoph as though he had just suffered a near-death experience akin to her misadventure at the lake. No sooner are they reunited, another stark harbinger presents itself. Omens and mysteries are everywhere in Petzold’s decidedly slippery romance.
As with Petzold’s own Yella (a quasi-remake of Herk Harvey’s all-timer Carnival of Souls), Undine is haunted by coincidence, the supernatural and a persistent linkage to the mysteries of water and the deep; prime metaphorical breeding grounds. While the film is never ‘easy’, the return of Undine’s old flame Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) to the story in its third act triggers a seemingly inescapable sense of tragedy as seeded throughout the first two thirds.
With his penchant for mystery, romance and melodrama, Petzold has frequently found himself compared – flatteringly – to Hitchcock. And if Undine recalls the unreliable eye and doubles of Vertigo, there’s also a subtle share of David Lynch and Jacques Rivette in the equation this time around, something that manifests in the delicate approach to sound design and the sense of the uncanny living in unison (if not unity) with the everyday.
With Petzold a perennial critical darling, I was surprised to see that the reception to Undine has been somewhat muted compared to the near-unanimous rapture afforded to his last two features, Phoenix and Transit. To these eyes, Undine is at least as compelling an experience as either of those. One of the year’s most strangely moving and beguiling pictures. A compact 90 minutes of menaces and mysteries.