Finding ways to follow up successful works can be a tricky undertaking. Especially if you’re German filmmaker Christian Petzold, who’s last two films, Phoenix and Transit, were masterful works of elegant thrills and lucid experimentation. So, when deciding what to do next, Petzold had to decide: Does he lean back toward the basics or further up the ante? For his latest work Undine, a Berlin-based pseudo-folkloric romantic drama, Petzold shoots for the latter. Playing on the eponymous mythic figure, Petzold grounds his film with a mood and sense of directorial control that engrosses you to the point where time seems immeasurable, as you gracefully live within the picture.
From one mysterious, melancholic film to the next, Petzold has had a number of recurring fixations: women in trouble, doomed romance, the specters of a grim past hovering over an unsettled present. He’s repeatedly shuffled and reshuffled these noirish elements, placing them in revealing new configurations, and Undine continues those trends of sorts. The film begins with a taut, relatively unassuming scene: a tense rendezvous outside a Berlin café between Undine (Paul Beer) and her boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), as he reveals he’s leaving her for another woman. Petzold frames the scene as a tight showdown between two stern people, but it’s Undine who scores the iciest line as she dashes off to work: “If you leave me you have to die.” She states that factually, and it’s taken to be true — the threat is ambiguous, but Undine manifestly holds the keys. She exudes dominance. Undine, from there, goes on to explore where the woman’s power stems — weaving between realism and fantasy; between the power of lust, and that of the mythic.
Their relationship does end, and again, ambiguity reigns — Undine having apparently not made true of her threat. But she’s off to her regular gig, leading tours, as a museum guide, about the history of Berlin’s urban development and architecture. These sequences display the distinct Petzold fixation of placing precise dilemmas festering against a broader sociopolitical backdrop. But it’s after one of her talks that Undine bumps into Christoph (a beautifully vulnerable Franz Rogowski), a kind-hearted, soft-spoken and passionate man who works as an industrial diver. The latter trait is arguably the most important, but just prior to their meeting, Undine is seemingly enticed by the model of a diving suit from within an aquarium. In mere seconds, it smashes over them both, washing them to the floor. As they lay in a pile of fish, glass and ornaments, they seem to swim in one another’s gaze. They fall in love at this very moment, and from this point, the film veers more strictly into the fantastical. Yet as Christoph and Undine develop their relationship, Undine maintains an eerie connection to her unresolved breakup, which bubbles to the surface in a series of dreamlike twists. Much like his Vertigo-inspired Phoenix, Petzold imbues his material here with a Hitchcockian build, as subtle moments drop hints of dark, invisible forces conspiring to complicate the situation. Undine may be losing her grip on reality, but reality has a few surprises in store for her as well.
Throughout, the film is fascinated with the ambiguities of the watery depths, of which Christoph’s profession is designed to easily interrogate. While the film, for the most part, flows as a more traditional romance on land, it becomes phantasmagorical when dropped below the surface. At one point, Christoph and Undine dive together, as Christof has found Undine’s name written at the foot of a pier, deep within a lake in which he frequently works. But soon, she momentarily disappears before floating to the surface, her diving apparatus stripped. Christoph resuscitates her, and she awakens yet coughs no water despite having apparently drowned. It’s in this manner that Petzold repeatedly implies that Undine could fit within the sea’s existing mythologies — a possible mermaid of some kind — but stops just short of clarity. And this ambiguity is wonderfully suspenseful and maintains an excellent allure.
There’s a lot to appreciate about the textures of Petzold’s perceptive screenplay, especially the way it conveys Undine’s slippery relationship to the world around her through Beer’s commanding performance. In one of the more innovative twists, Undine engages in an unusual erotic moment with Christoph as he asks her to recite the factoids from her tour in a whole new context. It’s a wry meditation on the way a city’s surroundings can become personal to the point of fetishization, and how they lessen Undine’s ability to engage with people who care about her and how the progression and industrialization of the world has lost its natural, mythic sense. Meanwhile, Petzold maintains his enduring love of classicism, especially with romantic cinema, and his precise visual sense — wide angles that capture his characters in uncertain landscapes, plus intricate closeups loaded with unspoken feeling — helps makes even the film’s surfaces something to relish. Petzold’s film is awash with wonderful ambiguities and really strives to both challenge and enliven the conventions of stories of this kind. And it succeeds in finding those detailed nuances. Soaked in a dreamy sensual calm, Undine‘s captivating desires and perceptive textures deftly capture an engrossing mood that swims in a languid vitality.
Undine screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival. IFC Films will release the film later this year.