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'Undine' Review: Melancholic German fable is at first elusive, then unforgettable

The German filmmaker is back to his deeply melancholic ways, and while his new movie is a tougher paradox to crack, it's mighty rewarding.
Credit: IFC Films

For as much online conversation as there’s been lately attempting to equivocate movie quality with runtime, “Undine,” a sneakily bracing movie about transitory romance from the German writer-director Christian Petzold, feels like the first new release in a long time to deliver something of value to the conversation.

Though it barely cracks 90 minutes in form, “Undine” contends with the consequences of seemingly infinite history in function, ultimately revealing itself as a strange, yet deeply melancholic modern fable whose depths we’re meant to be lured by but never wholly absorbed into. We certainly feel we’ve watched a full story after 90 minutes, but the lasting impression left by “Undine” is of something ripped from the constraints of time. That’s in line with the thematic trajectory Petzold has charted over his career, though here things feel by turns even more intimate and wide-reaching. It’s a film about closure that understands there’s no such thing as closure, befitting Petzold’s cinematic investment in the paradoxical.

“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” Undine (Paula Beer) says to her partner, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) as things open at an impasse outside a Berlin cafe. But it’s the next three words which drain the ultimatum of any hint of playfulness while signaling the film’s faintly fantastical mood: “You know that.” Those familiar with Petzold’s work – including his recent “Phoenix” and “Transit,” movies which marry the slightly spectral and the suspenseful – will know for themselves that the veiled threat likely won’t be neatly explained. The enigmatic filmmaker is fond of underexplanation, of muting motivations just enough for the audience to tune themselves to those frequencies in a way that feels natural, organic and individualistic, all the while presenting characters within workmanlike routines.

That happens rather explicitly with Undine in “Undine.” The delivery of her declaration sparks a myriad of questions, but before we’ve run through all of them in our head she’s crossed the street to work, where we observe her explicating the contexts of Berlin’s archaeological history to a cadre of international visitors over an intricate model. A few minutes later, having returned to the cafe to find Johannes gone, she experiences a chaotic meet-cute with Christoph (Franz Rogowski, one of the most naturally sympathetic actors working today, poetically reuniting with his “Transit” co-star).

It would seem like the stuff of pure fate even if we didn’t hear the faint whispering of Undine’s name from some unseen, perhaps-cosmic force moments beforehand. The personal is tangled with the political in “Undine,” but there are glimmers of prophecy here as well, and indications of a director searching for submerged detours in his explorations of the tensions between Germanic past and future as his career enters its third decade.

It’s most noticeable in the film’s various ambiguities, which only multiply after Undine’s mood-setting ultimatum in the form of suggestions that she may not entirely be of this world, or at least not of this time in it. Dishing on specifics would come dangerously close to spoiler territory (to the extent that such a narratively sparse but emotionally broad movie can be spoiled), and “Undine” at first may not seem as versatile as prior Petzolds when it comes to layering story implications with thematic ones. (I wouldn’t recommend it as an entry point into the director’s work; seek out “Phoenix” if you’re in that camp). If closed-circuit movies grown from mystery-box blueprints represent the stuff du jour of contemporary Hollywood, Petzold’s stories play like big bangs of colliding principles, intentions and decades-spanning philosophies.

Despite those philosophies being tougher to crack open in “Undine,” the movie is nonetheless propelled by a familiar storytelling fluidity; you sink into a state of bliss watching Christoph and Undine grow closer, and the sensation is exacerbated by a disarming lack of framing around how long it takes for their love to fully blossom as much as the actors playing the lovers themselves. There’s no mistaking the glint in the soft-spoken Rogowski’s eyes, which only heightens the dramatic stakes when we consider what Undine isn’t telling Christoph after she brushes shoulders with Johannes later in the story. For her part, Beer, who seems to constantly be looking over her shoulder even when she isn’t, wonderfully communicates a core tension of being unwittingly suspended between past and future—ideas which Petzold’s screenplay roughly outlines via Undine’s career as a committed historian but which Beer’s performance breathes invigorating life into.

Watching Rogowski and Beer’s scenes together comes to be an almost self-reflexive experience, as if we were observing ourselves from some spectral remove. And why not? The love between Undine and Christoph is the stuff of everyday adoration – the way he playfully sprints alongside a train upon her arrival; the way they wrap their arms around each other on a stroll through town, a scene which will make you believe that Mia Wallace-ism about comfortably sharing silence – and the universality balances out a prickly unknowability biting at the edges of their attraction.

Because we fully believe in what a sure thing Undine and Christoph are in the now and can be in the future, we also tense up every time the past rears its head, whether it’s in the explicit formalities of urban Berlin’s history or the mystery surrounding how Johannes and Undine left things (read: wide open). Even when there’s little in the way of piecing the elements of “Undine” together, Petzold is encouraging us to consider the gulfs separating them. Christoph and Undine are teetering on the edge of that limbo, the same place from which a divinely realized melancholy and a serrated tinge of foreboding reside. By the third act of a movie that ends up flying by quicker than 90 minutes despite its limitless boundaries, an impossibly romantic score has become somber, and an impenetrable emotional logic has blossomed into an expansive emotional reckoning.

At the same time, we may check our initial impressions of the movie’s opening scenes. As Undine and Christoph reckon with the previously unreckoned with, juxtapositions which before seemed bare of meaning suddenly gain new dimensions – the movie’s repeating contrast between aquatic environments and concrete ones, for example – but “Undine” doesn’t pretend to locate easy compromises. A ghostly pall may be draped over the film’s final moments, though what’s worth remembering and what’s worth leaving behind isn’t easily discernible, which is how Petzold’s 90 minutes end up feeling infinite. In a movie that places an almost farcical emphasis on things breaking, shattering and splattering, it’s a wonder that “Undine” coalesces into something unforgettably soul-deep at the point of heartbreak.

"Undine" is not rated. It's available Friday in some theaters, and on VOD platforms. 

Starring: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Jacob Matschenz, Anna Ratte-Polle

Directed by Christina Petzold

2021

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