Christian Petzold’s “Undine” begins with a breakup. Framed tightly on the face of lead actor Paula Beer, we absorb the news as she does. But this is no ordinary separation, and as jilted lovers go, Undine’s far from typical. Her name betrays what sets her apart, although in the vast realm of mythological entities, undines are hardly the well-understood creatures that Petzold’s revisionist contemporary fable assumes (not in America, at least). As a result, this overripe romantic tragedy — which represented the Berlin School in competition at the Berlin Film Festival — won’t have the same impact abroad as the three critical darlings that preceded it, “Barbara,” “Phoenix” and “Transit.”
“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” Undine tells Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who has beckoned her to their usual café, across the street from the Berlin City Museum, where she works as a historian. This is the part in water sprite folklore when things typically turn dark. To our eyes, Undine looks human (Beer is big-eyed and lovely, and she plays the scene with surprising subtlety, considering that an operatic reaction would have been reasonable for one whose lover has doomed them both). Though the film doesn’t explain it explicitly, Undine was a water sprite by origin, and as such, she was only able to achieve her present form by falling in love with a man — one who must remain faithful to her or else forfeit his life.
By beginning at this point, Petzold has skipped over the sexy part of the story, at least as it is usually relayed in literature and the arts — and, on very rare occasion, in film (as in Neil Jordan’s Irish “Ondine”). Like Hans-Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, undines long to live among humans, and true love makes that possible. Now, the question becomes: Is Petzold’s heroine obliged to fulfill her destiny? (Must she kill Johannes?) Or is there something she can do to alter it?
Looking back through Petzold’s oeuvre, we see that his heroines share a version of the undine ambition: They, too, want to lead a life — free from tragedy, oppression and the shadows of 20th-century German history. Few male directors of Petzold’s stature have committed themselves so deeply to women-centric narratives. With “Undine,” the classical-minded helmer returns to the present, while remaining anchored to a female POV. His Undine does not wish to return to the lake from which she came. Although almost literally a “fish out of water,” she seems to have adjusted well to life on land: Undine holds a respectable job, inhabits a modern Berlin apartment and spends her days learning about the city — one whose complicated urban history occupies an inordinate amount of the film’s otherwise economical run time.
Johannes has betrayed her, but before she can even find time to grieve, Undine meets an industrial diver named Christoph (Beer’s “Transit” co-star Franz Rogowski), who sweeps her off her feet in an unexpected — and very wet — way. Christoph couldn’t be less like Johannes. He’s sweet, and sentimental, and devoted to the point of being clingy, all of which the movie idealizes over the course of a gushy half-hour courtship. Christoph has been working in a lake near Wuppertal, Germany, where he comes face-to-face with a giant catfish — a good sign that he’s not easily intimidated by underwater creatures, perhaps.
Christoph recalls having seen Undine’s name stenciled on one of the ancient arches beneath the surface, and he takes her diving there on a date. According to undine legend (or the film’s press notes), “Should she come back into contact with her element after her marriage, she must return to it.” But Undine is already breaking the rules, and Christoph seems to represent a loophole. Or maybe she’s her own exception, since Petzold tends not to define his heroines through their relation to men, but rather in terms of their strength and resourcefulness. Could his Undine actually be free from the curse of co-dependence?
Frankly, trying to parse how Petzold’s “Undine” stacks up against mythology that many audiences don’t know to begin with feels like something of a fool’s errand. Better to let the romance wash over you. Savor the way that Christoph reveres her intelligence. At one point, he interrupts their lovemaking to flatter her intellect, insisting that she try out her latest speech on him. “You say such clever things, and in a beautiful way,” he tells her in all sincerity.
If Johannes represented the seemingly inevitable infidelity of man, Christoph serves as a humble counter-example. But the movie isn’t ready to wish them “happily ever after,” and when Johannes resurfaces at the movie’s midway mark, we can feel the plot kick into gear: Undine must deal with unfinished business, and in so doing, risk losing Christoph. She’s a creature of the water, and as such, a swimming pool seems a reasonable place for Johannes to get his reckoning. The scene feels like something out of a late-night cable movie, minus the unearned nudity, though “Undine” returns to its more enchanted tone for the final reel, in which Christoph gets caught up in the movie’s ill-defined curse.
It would help enormously if Petzold had, at some point, managed to articulate the rules that govern Undine and her kind, so that audiences might appreciate how he intends to break them — and of course, the way in which she simply cannot overcome her fate. There’s a stylistic and narrative elegance to Petzold’s approach, with its clean lensing and repeated use of a single piece of music (the rolling piano Adagio from Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974), that suggests restraint, where a queer filmmaker might have propelled things into camp territory. In a way, it’s a shame that “Undine” stops short, since the material feels thin, and the statement as murky as the lake to which the camera ultimately returns.