NYFF: Notes on Undine
Though German filmmaker Christian Petzold is 60 years old, it seems have only been the past eight years or so that have seen him rise to international prominence. First, partnering with Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld on Barbara and Phoenix, then teaming up with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski on Transit and now Undine. His primary concerns are heterosexual romantic relationships (Phoenix, Transit, and Undine) and the effects of politics and wars on individuals and their relationships (Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit). Though Undine is less concerned with politics, it still weaves political concerns into its story.
The title Undine refers to mythical mermaid type creature whois water-based and has no human soul. She may gain one through a romantic partnership with a man, but if he leaves her she must murder him. Though Petzold's telling does focus on heterosexual romance, there is less suggestion that the undine's humanity rests on the salvation of men. The movie starts with a break-up--Undine's boyfriend Johannes breaks up with her. When she tells him she'll have to kill him, he's not sure what to make of the threat, but agrees to wait at the coffee shop until she returns form a work break to discuss things more. Undine goes to her government job, where she gives tours of large 3-D models of Berlin, focusing her lectures largely on aspects of the reunification of Berlin and the changes to the city as a result. When Undine returns to the coffee shop after her tour, Johannes is gone. As she looks for him, Christoph wanders in, and Undine saves him from a shattering aquarium. They quickly fall in love.
From there, Undine becomes a romance in the classical mode. There's lots of romance, a little jealousy, a little violence, a tragedy, a sacrifice, and a few lovely touches of magic. In many ways, this is Petzold's simplest film. Though Undine's lectures on Berlin develop a slightly complex theme on transition and change, the movie is mostly content to be an old-fashioned romance in the magical tradition (Brigadoon, Ondine, The Shape of Water).
Though Undine doesn't necessarily factor into Petzold's corpus as a major work, it's nevertheless a delightful addition. It's certainly one of his most optimistic films and the first of his more well known set solely in the contemporary world (Transit's world is more a science fictional combination of contemporary and WWII times). It's great to see a filmmaker explore new territory and I'm excited to see what's next.