Undine—the latest from German filmmaker Christian Petzold—is a curious little mystery about one woman, two men, and a whole lot of water.
Derived from the Latin word for wave, unda, Undine is a water nymph in European mythology, which ought to clue you in to what kind of character Undine (played by Paula Beer) is. She’s a historian by trade—the city of Berlin is her métier—and she’s in love with two men: Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who we learn little about, and Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a diver who maintains a dam turbine in the mountains outside of Berlin.
Christoph is the more smitten of the two. Maybe because every time he dives, he sees an ancient stone arch with the name “Undine” painted on it. Who painted the name, when they painted it, and why remains a mystery. He also sees an enormous catfish in the reservoir. Whether or not anyone beyond Christoph can see the catfish is up to the viewer.
Undine may not be a direct movie, but it is an engaging one—and a bit mischievous. Petzold makes viewers ask a lot of questions but refrains from giving them too many answers. The clue, if there is one, might lay in the movie’s central metaphor: Berlin. Thorough the film, Undine lectures tourists about the city, its history, and its architectural makeup. As she points out, Berlin is oblique by design. A museum built in the 21st century is meant to look like an 18th-century palace repurposed. A century worth of regime changes allowed for foreign influence. Citizens can travel through centuries by merely walking across the street. It’s as if time has collapsed in on itself. For example, when Christoph returns to Undine’s apartment, he finds another couple living there. We’ve been here for months, they tell Christoph. But Christoph points to a wine stain on the wall; he made that when he knocked a glass off Undine’s nightstand just a few weeks ago.
Some movies have unreliable narrators; Undine plays more like an unreliable narrative. It may not have the profundity of Petzold’s previous films, Phoenix and Transit, but it’s a transfixing work that pulls you down deep.
Written and directed by Christian Petzold
Produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber
Starring: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz, Anne Ratte-Polle
Sundance Selects, Not rated, Running time 91 minutes, Opens June 4, 2021.
A version of this review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 11, “Seven shorts and a feature.”