According to artistic and literary representations, Undine (or Ondine), the water nymph, is usually female and seductive. You wouldn’t expect them to be experts in GDR-era architecture and post-Unification urbanization, but Undine Wibeau certainly is. Just what her connection is to her namesake myth will be revealed over the course of Christian Petzold’s Undine, which releases this Friday in theaters and on VOD.
Wibeau has just been dumped by her faithless boyfriend Johannes and she is not dealing with it well. Providentially, her rebound, Christoph is right there in the audience of her latest museum lecture. She is almost too self-absorbed in her resentment and codependency to notice him, until fate explosively intervenes. Soon, she finds the sort of romantic relationship she always desired with Christoph, the industrial diver.
He is actually the one who makes his living from the water. In fact, he is eager to show her an old shipwreck that bears her name on its prow. Unfortunately, fate will intervene once again, forcing Wibeau to come to terms with her true self.
Petzold’s Undine is radically different from most mermaid/selkie films, but it would still make an intriguing pairing with Neil Jordan's Ondine, which its title brings to mind (both intriguingly riff off selkie/mermaid myths, without trotting out tail fins or tridents). Frankly, some reviews and synopses probably give away too much. It is better to go into Undine not knowing about as much as you might learn from this review.
If you do, Undine definitely engages on a deep level. It is not as powerful and moving as Petzold’s masterworks, Phoenix and Barbara, but it still ranks with them rather than his more cerebral films, such as Transit and Jerichow.
Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski (who also co-starred in Transit) have terrific (awkward in the right kind of way) chemistry as Wibeau and Christoph. Neither come across as blow-dried romantic leads, but that helps us take an emotional stake in their relationship. Jacob Matschenz and Maryam Zaree also have sizeable roles as Johannes and Monika, Christoph’s diving partner, but Beer and Rogowski completely outshine them.
is undeniably a contemporary fantasy, but Petzold incorporates the fantastical elements in subtle and strangely understated ways. Dim-witted viewers will probably lose patience during Wibeau’s lecture-scenes, but he adroitly uses them to slowly tease out her character. They also happen to be interesting as architectural-urban development history, so try to pay attention and maybe learn something. (Cinematographer Hans Fromm also lenses these scenes in a way that really brings them alive.)
Undine is a slow-boil, but it lands a haymaker punch. You just have to stay focused. It is the sort of film that won’t work if you try to clean your house while watching it. Petzold is actually a very accessible filmmaker, but each of his scenes is very deliberately crafted and carefully built atop of each other—that is especially true of Undine. Highly recommended for fans of art-house fantasy cinema, Undine opens this Friday (6/4) at the Jacob Burns Film Center (and also releases on VOD).