With Cruella in theaters and on Disney+ now, audiences are primed and ready for Undine, which could be argued is another live-action version of a classic Disney animated tale, The Little Mermaid. It would be a great way to sell children on this story of a historian in modern-day Berlin who also happens to be a folkloric sea creature who is on land seeking her one true love. Naturally, the children might be upset when they discover that this is a methodically paced, tremendously internalized character drama from German master Christian Petzold, the filmmaker behind recent knockouts such as Phoenix and Transit.
Undine sees the filmmaker reuniting with his two Transit stars, Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski. While Rogowski was the lead of that film, here the roles are reversed as Beer takes on the titular part, embodying Undine with a fascinating interiority that keeps us wondering what she’s thinking at every turn. When we first meet her she is being spurned by her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a brutal blow that Undine responds to by informing him that if he leaves her she will have to kill him. Interestingly, she doesn’t say this as a threat per se. Rather, she states it almost as a matter of fact – as if he knows this is what the deal is, and that it’s simply something she would have to do.
This opening scene presents the first of many mysteries of Undine, both the film and the character, as Petzold makes us lean into every moment to try and decipher this world he has created. As we saw with the way he toyed with the concept of time in Transit, presenting an era that felt both present day and historical in the same instant, Petzold has assembled a reality here that feels a bit left of center. Undine represents something timeless, an entity who has existed for perhaps hundreds of years, yet she is also very much grounded in the real world of this period of time that we are spending with her. It makes for a film that is constantly threading this line between the mythic and the real world, creating another controlled, deliberate mishmash of cinematic ideas from a director who is making pictures unlike anyone else out there.
Of course, when Petzold makes these films which present radical shifts in our conventional understanding of how cinema is supposed to look and feel, it’s crucial for him to ground them in something that we do understand and can easily hold onto. With Undine that is the central romance, as the character begins to recover from her broken heart when she finds potential true love with Christoph (Rogowski), a deep sea diver she meets by chance and immediately finds a connection with. Rogowski is an endlessly intriguing actor, a dancer who brings immense physicality to his performances that makes him the perfect fit for Petzold’s worlds. Having worked with Beer before on Transit in a romantic capacity, the two already have a familiarity with one another and the rhythms of their processes that allows them to slip easily into a coupling that we buy into without hesitation.
It cannot be understated how phenomenal Beer is in her role here. The winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival in 2020, where Undine premiered, so much of the success of this picture is riding on her and she only serves to elevate it more and more with each scene. As Petzold is a filmmaker who embodies the internal, Beer must live the experience of this character in a way that we truly feel, never having the luxury of the writing spoon-feeding the audience Undine’s thoughts or emotions. The actress has the responsibility of conveying it all, of knowing when to hold back and when to push a little deeper, of containing the entire history of this character in her every breath and body movement, and she is utterly magnificent.
Christian Petzold’s films have always been rather difficult to put into words, to analyze from a critical perspective, as they more than anything else are experiences that you feel. He takes a novelistic approach to his storytelling, building out whole worlds that you genuinely live in for 90 minutes or so each time, and yet there is so much going on in every scene that simply can’t be captured in words. Watching a Petzold film is a truly unique experience, which makes a new release from him an absolute event, and Undine doesn’t disappoint. It’s not the next blockbuster, it’s something far better – a genuinely gripping tale that entrances you and will stay with you days, weeks, months after you’ve finished watching, pulling you in like a siren to watch it again.
Undine will be in select theatres and on VOD on June 4th