Berlinale 2020: Undine
After delivering three knockouts on the trot, German director Christian Petzold jumps the shark (or should that be catfish) with this goofy fantasy set in modern-day Berlin, in which Paula Beer plays the soul-sucking water nymph of the title
Undine, the latest film from the always-interesting German filmmaker Christian Petzold, features one of the strangest meet-cutes in recent memory. A man called Christoph (Franz Rogowski) is so enthralled by a talk on Berlin’s GDR-era urban planning given by Undine (Paula Beer) that he follows her into a cafe after the lecture to chat her up. Undine is a tad distracted, however, because the six-inch-high deepsea diving figure inside a fish tank above the bar is calling her name.
The tank then suddenly explodes – Mission Impossible-style – covering Cristoph and Undine in water, shards of glass and flapping fish. Lying on the floor among the soggy wreckage, they look into each other’s eyes and you sense a spark pass between them – only to be interrupted by an irate waiter who wanders in and reprimand the pair for causing such chaos in his establishment. “You arseholes,” he screams.
This scene – at once romantic, mysterious, dreamlike and daft – is a good barometer for the strange tone Petzold shoots for in this curious cross between fantasy and melodrama. Undine is no mere architecture historian, you see. She may also be the Undine, the mythical water nymph with a penchant for sucking the souls from lovers who betray her. When her cheating boyfriend dumps her in the opening scene, she calmly informs him that, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you". Her meeting with Cristoph veers her off this rather extreme course of action toward a more standard break-up, as she appears to have found true happiness.
No one seems to bat an eyelid that Undine is an elemental being. It certainly doesn’t get in the way of her career exploring how the past and present rub up against each other in the urban environment of Germany’s capital. In this way, she’s a kindred spirit of Petzold’s, who also enjoys picking at the scab of German history.
Undine is of a piece with Petzold’s earlier work in several ways. His protagonists tend to be adrift from their surroundings. In 2007’s Yellen the title character is a literal ghost, while in films like Transit, Barbara and Phoenix we follow people trying to throw off their own identity and escape their past. Petzold also likes to weave genre elements into his ostensible realist dramas, but Undine’s clash with fantasy and reality make it quite a different beast from his run of extraordinary films this century.
The film can be distractingly goofy. A huge CGI catfish called Big Gunther features prominently in the narrative, and a scene where a character gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a person they love is somewhat undermined by being scored to an acapella rendition of the Bee Gees’ Stayin Alive. These goofs somewhat go against the grain of the mournful piano refrain by Bach that marbles the narrative. Petzold is clearly enjoying himself here, but his gonzo approach somewhat robs this tragic love story of any emotional power.
Undine had its world premiere at Berlinale 2020