For those unfamiliar with German director Christian Petzold, the main thing to know is that he doesn’t mind keeping his stories — and, by extension, his audiences — under an alluring shroud of mystery. His World War II-set masterwork Phoenix tells a tense tale of mistaken identity that doesn’t fully reveal its depths until its breathtaking final minutes. His follow-up Transit depicts a refugee fleeing occupied France who impersonates a dead writer, though it takes about halfway through the runtime to even put that together. However, his latest film Undine may be his most straightforward work yet: a fantasy romance adapted from European mythology in which the fate of two lovers undulates amid a sea of uncertainty.
We meet Undine (Paula Beer) as she’s in the middle of a tense and even menacing breakup conversation with her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who said that he’s met another woman. Despite the awful news, she pulls herself together and returns to her job of lecturing tourists on the history of Berlin’s urban development. Her poised speeches capture the attention of industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski), whose meet-cute with Undine after his tour involves a shattered fish tank and the newly-acquainted pair lying on the ground under it. It doesn’t take long for the two to become smitten and fall deeply in love with one another, until a pair of well-hidden secrets threatens to throw cold water on their fresh relationship.
Reuniting from Transit, Beer and Rogowski once again sport a world-class chemistry that’s both classically romantic and also endearing in a more modern sense. When they look into each other’s eyes, it’s nearly impossible for one not to want them to be with each other forever. Fans of The Office will rejoice in a reference to a CPR trick synced to the tempo of Bee Gees’ classic “Stayin’ Alive”, whose inclusion in the film could seem corny but Beer really sells her character’s connection with the song through her new beau. Rogowski, whose resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix still remains uncanny to me, steadily augments the longing in his face with each departing train ride that Undine takes to the other side of the city.
Like any made-for-movie romance, there is a titanic tragedy at the foundation of their blossoming affair but in this case, the nature of the “iceberg” is perhaps best left for audiences to discover on their own. Petzold carefully arranges clues and hints to the circumstances of the pair’s divide starting from the opening scene as he weaves folklore and history into this modern dark fairytale. Even Undine’s orations on architectural concepts of post-GDR Berlin threaten boredom upon first exposure but gradually transform into a poignant metaphor about the ability to rebuild oneself after a painful past. The irresistible connection between the two leads should be enough to keep viewers glued to the screen but there’s also plenty under the surface that’s worth diving into.
Using a sparse but effective list of musical selections, Petzold most notably employs a lovely piano-based Bach concerto as a recurring theme for Undine and Christoph. He also insinuates a creeping sense of unreality while exploring some of the story’s more fantastical elements, as when the camera on Christoph’s diving suit picks up images that differ from what we see earlier from his perspective. Elegant and enchanting, Undine makes it easy for one to get swept up in the tidal waves of adoration and yearning between its conspicuously charming couple.
Score – 4/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering both on HBO Max and in theaters is In The Heights, a musical starring Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace telling the story of a New York City bodega owner who saves his money in hopes of a better life.
Playing only in theaters is Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, a live-action/CGI comedy starring James Corden and Margot Robbie continuing the story of the titular hare as he makes a trip into the big city.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Infinite, a sci-fi actioner starring Mark Wahlberg and Chiwetel Ejiofor about a man who discovers that his hallucinations are actually visions from past lives.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup