June 4th, 2021
STARRING: PAULA BEER, FRANZ ROGOWSKI, MARYAM ZAREE, JACOB MATSCHENZ
DIRECTED BY: CHRISTIAN PETZOLD
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The films of Christian Petzold continue to be elusive and fascinating to me. The writer/director of masterful works such as Phoenix, Transit, and Barbara has his own unique style. His way of storytelling is his own, an ambitious, and ambiguous mold of narratives. It’s difficult to pin any of his films down. Transit was set in the future, an apocalyptic time, but it felt more current than futuristic. Phoenix was mysterious and bordered on a noir with bright reds injected into the film. And now we have Undine, which might be my favorite of them all, telling a story of love, regret, heartbreak, and a dash of a ghost story. Undine is a fascinating tale, leaving you thinking long after the final frame, in another magnificent expression of art from Christian Petzold.
Undine (Paula Beer) is the title character. We meet her sitting at a cafe, with a tear running down her cheek, and talking with Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). He has broken up with her, revealing that he’s been seeing someone else, and Undine responds by threatening him. She works across the street at the Berlin architecture center, giving tours and talks about the structures in the city. She tells Johannes that she will be back after her next tour and if he’s not still there, she’s going to kill him. The tone is set, but it’s what happens after which is classic Petzold, where the twist of fate is as predictable as a roll of the dice. It’s that unpredictability, a way of grabbing us by the hand, walking us down a road, and never knowing what will be next.
When Undine arrives back at the cafe, Johannes is gone, but then she meets an industrial diver named Christoph (Franz Rogowski). Their connection is a stroke of fate, immediately becoming a meet-cute, where a fish tank in the cafe breaks, water pouring all over them, and leaving shards of glass in Undine’s arm. Everything after is as if Johannes didn’t exist and the narrative quickly moves onto the relationship between Undine and Christoph. Their love is gentle and sweet, but Undine has other things on her mind, and fate has a funny way of coming back around and changing the course once again.
If I’m being a bit vague in my description of Undine it’s because, like most of Petzold’s films, it’s an enigmatic picture. There’s a connection between many things in the narrative and each one will be interpreted differently by the viewer. Petzold and his cinematographer Hans Fromm focus on the architecture of the buildings surrounding these characters. People living in a country with a rich history and various strokes of fate on a global scale. He also places his characters in deliberate locations, such as Undine’s apartment, looking over the train station, two cars constantly passing in opposite directions of one another. There’s an interpretation to how we see two lovers intertwined or when one person is left sleeping alone on the bed. The way Undine and Christoph sit alone at the train stop or how we see the real beauty of these characters when they are doing their professions. In every frame, every touch, every moment there is something being said by Christian Petzold.
The ending is not impossible to decipher but it’s also not spoon fed to the viewer. It’s partially why I’m not a full four stars yet. I like to categorize Petzold’s movies as a must to watch with another person. There will be many conversations had after Undine. What it means when one person leaves our lives and another person enters into it. What the significance is about a diver figurine that was in the fish tank. And what happens when Johannes appears back into Undine’s life. It’s complicated, mysterious, and an exercise in how the lies we tell ourselves, can come back to get us.
One movie that feels similar to Undine is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a ghost story mixed with a tale about a woman discovering herself in the process. Much like Kristen Stewart’s work in that, I have nothing but praise for lead actor Paula Beer. There’s a great enigmatic appeal to her work, excellently concealing her emotions, but also undoubtedly afraid to open herself up to a new love. It’s the gentle nature of Christoph that turns her hard edges softer, because he is a kind soul, a man that’s easy to fall in love with. But is the story of Undine’s life a romance, a tragedy, or a beautiful capturing of lives crossing paths? The answer is in between the lines, under the surface, and deep inside the hearts of these two lovers.
Undine is another hit from the unyielding mind of Christian Petzold. His way of weaving a narrative between the lives of his characters is immensely authentic. He’s a true auteur, an enlightened mind of brilliant complexities. Undine dives deep into the life of a mysterious woman, her love life, and a treasure trove of intrigue. It’s a Christian Petzold film alright, you can’t mistake it for anything else.
UNDINE IS PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS, ON DIGITAL, AND VOD THIS FRIDAY JUNE 4TH
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady