2021, NR, 90 min. Directed by Christian Petzold. Starring Paula Beer, Jacob Matschenz, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Anne Ratte-Polle.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., July 16, 2021
“You said you love me. Forever.”
This menacing reminder from Undine (Beer) echoes throughout Christian Petzold’s film of the same name, cutting like a dagger plunged directly into the heart. Undine, after all, is a fairy tale, derived from the classic 1811 novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué about a water spirit who marries a knight to gain a soul and walk on land. Love is what connects her to the earth, breathes life into what used to lurk in the depths of the water.
Petzold has a fondness for the deep desperation of a woman’s love, the sticky pain of unrequited longing. Undine is no different, opening with a breakup that feels like whiplash, carefully conceived at a public coffee shop in the hopes of a scene not erupting. Distressed, Undine scurries to her job across the street, struck with disbelief that her lover would abandon her, and with blind passion rushes through her tour to try to get back to her ex, Johannes (Matschenz), before he exits her life forever. He’s long gone, but in her frenzy, she crashes into Christoph (Rogowski), a shy but strong industrial diver who instantly connects with Undine, the rushing waves of love at first sight overwhelming.
Undine then lunges forward in time, to a point where Undine and Christoph have been together for a year. Even with the time jump, Petzold’s romance swims in noir intensity, with an underlying hum that hints their entangled lovers’ bliss is a needle prick away from bursting. Beer and Rogowski are reunited after Petzold’s previous success, Transit, their chemistry just as burning, just as intertwined and heavy. However, the mystery of what Undine is hovers in plain sight, as Christoph takes her on a dive to show that her name has been carved into an old ruin. It’s the beginning of an enigma that turns into a cyclone of paranoia, especially when Johannes resurfaces. Like a siren call, Undine is drawn back to him, leaving Christoph a nervous wreck.
The way Petzold’s longtime cinematographer Hans Fromm swishes the camera brings the watery lore to life. Towering buildings sparkle like stars, lush trees swirl in the wind, and Beer’s vivid red hair burns bright in the waters engulfing it. He brings a sensory experience to Petzold’s magnetic fairy tale, a true exploration of magical realism, delicate and refined.
Undine’s hauntingly aching romance is enchanting, as thick as the feeling of inhaling water into your lungs. There’s a drowning sensation to Petzold’s myth-building in Undine that’s totally engrossing, once again proving he is one of the world’s most exquisite love story composers. Undine’s a film made for whimsical water lovers, those who’d rather sink to a lake’s depths, fearless and wild.