German director, Christian Petzold, trades the eloquently crafted period drama that has become his trademark in the last few tenures (including Phoenix and Transit) for a present era tragedy with mythical touch in his new film, Undine. While the title—referring to the protagonist’s name—sounds obvious, it has never been clearly assuring to whether Petzold’s new drama is a story about a mythological water fairy or a heartbreaking love story inspired by the water spirit. Whichever stance it implies, any prerequisite knowledge about undines might lead audiences to different exits as the story goes. One thing for sure, the narrative doesn’t operate in the magical, fairy tale ways; but, it rather follows a more haunting path, observing the worst case scenario in the happily-ever-after aftermath.
Undine begins with a highly pivotal scene that might divide the perceptions of those with prior knowledge to the legends and those who hasn’t. It’s a break-up scene as Undine (Transit‘s Paula Beer), a historian working in Berlin City Museum, is dumped by her infidel lover, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). In a sharp, piercing look, Undine looks straight in her lover’s eye and swears that she’ll have to kill him if he leaves her. There’s something chilling in the way she speaks as if she believe that her looks can kill. It’s easy to overlook her reactions as a mere anger-induced tantrum as in many people will have. What makes hers different from others is the legend wraps over her. An Undine, while resembling a woman, lacks of a human soul and the mortal quality; for that, she must find herself a man to love her and her only. That’s where the fairy tale starts and ends; as if it’s in the foundation of H.C. Andersen’s Little Mermaid. Yet, Undine‘s story exists beyond that timeline. It focuses on another legend says if the man is unfaithful, he is bound to die. That’s the trickiest part.
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Never had the story confirmed Beer’s Undine as the same Undine as in the myth; but, Petzold visually confirms that she exudes aquatic attractions in several unexplained moments. The revelation starts to unravel as the heartbroken protagonist meets a diver, Christoph (Franz Rogowski, Beer’s co-star in Transit), who seems to have awakened something within her. Their moments together are often staged with water-related events, such as the exploding aquarium scene or where the diver meets a gigantic catfish in a lake and finds Undine’s name inscribed in an underwater ruin. Christoph is like the antithesis of Johannes; he’s simply infatuated with Undine (even when we never actually compare them in an apple-to-apple measurement). At this point, Petzold reverses the fairy tale formula—switching the tragedy in front with the sexy part, but with two different male conquests. For a moment, Undine revolves around the romance between the titular character and the diver to delve deeper into the heroine’s true nature; but, eventually, it’s Undine’s obsession to Johannes that gives this film the unnerving energy.
The question remains the same throughout the end, even when Undine has unraveled the supernatural elements in it without confirming anything. After exploring the tragic romance and legend in the making, the film finally gives a hint of what it actually is about as if it’s prompting a second viewing to collect the breadcrumb. Petzold, once again crafting an adept melodrama with strong characters, aims for a magical transcendence that barely arrives, but Undine is still a grand lovelorn story that explicitly embraces everything that is excellent from the director.