Christian Petzold’s “Undine” alternatively frustrated and fascinated me when I watched it at a local theater during this afternoon. While I enjoyed its odd mix of romance and fantasy to some degree, I was also distracted by how its rather weak narrative often falters, and I was eventually left with lingering dissatisfaction even though I appreciated a number of good elements in the film including mood and performance.
At the beginning, the movie seems to be simply about the end of the relationship between a woman named Undine (Paula Beer) and her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matshcenz). Although he is quite frank about ending their relationship right from the beginning of their conversation at a cafe which is near to her workplace, Undine cannot accept this change, and she desperately pleads to him to wait for her at the cafe for a while as she has a job to do right now.
Undine’s workplace is a city history museum located in the middle of Berlin, and the movie calmly observes how she does her job in front of various visitors. As showing one thing after another, she gives them a succinct lecture on the history of Berlin, and the camera looks into the models and maps in the big hall of the museum from time to time. While this scene gives us some character background for Undine, we also get to know a bit about how Berlin was founded and then developed during several centuries, and that often resonates with the occasional brief shots showing the urban landscapes of the city.
Anyway, Undine is devastated when she returns to the cafe and then finds that Johannes is already gone, but then an unexpected incident happens to her. A man enters the cafe by coincidence, and, what do you know, they instantly feel something quite strong between them as virtually swept by what timely occurs around them. Although she does not know anything about him at all, Undine finds herself becoming quite attracted to him, and he also quickly falls in love with her as tenderly taking care of her accidental injuries.
And then we get to know about this guy and his job. His name is Christoph (Franz Rogowski), and he has worked as a professional diver. His latest job is fixing some underwater equipments in some rural river, and we are subsequently served with an uncanny moment when he happens to encounter something unbelievable in the middle of his underwater operation. Although this scene somehow took me back to those cheesy underwater horror films such as “Leviathan” (1989), Petzold and his cinematographer Hans Fromm maintain well the sense of awe and mystery on the screen, and the same thing can be said about the other key underwater scene in the film where Christoph takes Undine into the river for showing something special for her.
As Undine and Christoph get closer to each other, it seems she can lean on him more than before, but then Undine happens to come across Johannes while she happens to be with Christoph, and she briefly becomes unsure about whether she is totally finished with Johannes. To make matters worse, Johannes later approaches to Undine as showing his regret on walking away from her, and then it looks like Christoph somehow senses what is going on inside her heart and mind.
Now you may have some idea on where its story and characters are heading, but Petzold’s screenplay takes several unexpected plot turns as going further into the realm of fantasy. Although these plot turns do not entirely work, they provide to Paul Beer a number of nice opportunities to demonstrate her considerable acting talent, and Beer, who won the Silver Bear award when the movie was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, is engaging while quietly but vividly conveying to us her character’s increasingly desperate state of mind.
However, the movie remains detached and distant without much emotional involvement, and that aspect is further exacerbated when it unfortunately puts more distance between us and its drama during its last act. In addition, several other main characters in the film besides Undine and Christoph are not particularly developed well, and that is one of the main reasons why the finale does not work as well as intended.
At least, Beer’s performance carries the film as much as demanded, and she and Franz Rogowski, who incidentally worked along with her in Petzold’s previous film “Transit” (2018), are effortless in those intimate scenes between their characters. Rogowski, who came to draw my attention for the first time via his good performance in “In the Aisles” (2018), shows us here again that he is indeed another interesting new talent to watch, and his sensitive acting complements well Beer’s showier performance throughout the film.
Overall, “Undine” is relatively less interesting and satisfying compared to Petzold’s previous works including “Phoenix” (2014), which I chose as one of the best films of the 2010s for its many powerful moments still lingering on my mind even at present. Due to my current doubts on whether it works well enough for recommendation, I give it 2.5 stars, but, considering that it took some time for me to appreciate and admire “Transit” and “Barbara” (2012), “Undine” may look better to me later, and I am willing to give it a second chance someday.