On Friday, Christian Petzold’s Undine finally arrives in the U.S., well over a year after its premiere at the Berlinale, where it won an award for best film in the main competition from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and a Silver Bear for Paula Beer’s lead performance. In the run-up to Friday’s release, contributors to In Review Online are revisiting every feature as well as a “smattering” of television films and episodes Petzold has directed over the course of twenty-five years. The German filmmaker is “arguably contemporary cinema’s most consistent chronicler of twenty-first-century Europe, an era formed and defined by the economic, political, and social calamities of the preceding twentieth century,” writes Daniel Gorman in the introduction to the InRO retrospective. “It’s a fascinating body of work, with cold, sparse surfaces that contain a surfeit of explosive emotions—indeed, Petzold might be our last true purveyor of the melodrama.”
The centuries-old story of a water nymph who takes on human form and a lover who must never leave her—if he does, she’ll have to kill him and return to the water—is fertile ground for melodrama. Beer’s Undine is dumped in the very first scene, but before she has time to process the pain, she falls for Christoph, an underwater welder played by one of Germany’s rising stars, Franz Rogowski, who, like Beer, first worked with Petzold on Transit (2018).
Beer’s vague resemblance to Nina Hoss, the star of Petzold’s Something to Remind Me (2001), Wolfsburg (2003), Yella (2007), Jerichow (2008), Barbara (2012), and Phoenix (2014), has drawn unfavorable comparisons from a handful of critics. In the Notebook, Daniel Kasman finds that Beer “fails to have that magical something” that has given Hoss “an entrancingly independent and unpredictable singularity.” Melissa Anderson has had her reservations as well. “Besotted with Hoss, I took an irrational dislike to Beer, whom I found a wan substitute: too young, too short, incapable of ever exuding Hoss’s casual steeliness, her throaty grandeur,” she writes in 4Columns. But Anderson has come around. “Undine’s success owes largely to Beer’s talent for seamlessly inhabiting two personas—one rooted in the outré, the other in centuries of certainties and data—often at the same time.”
Undine works as a guide to a museum’s collection of three-dimensional models of Berlin depicting the city in various stages of its turbulent development: from a sooty industrial town in the nineteenth century to the capital of a fascist regime in the twentieth, then from the crushed site of loss and rubble to the focal point of the Cold War, and most recently, a hub of real estate speculation and gentrification. “I think of Berlin as a raped city architecturally,” Petzold tells Dustin Chang at ScreenAnarchy. “Every three years, someone is coming with new architecture plans.” When the wall dividing the city fell in 1989, “Berlin had the chance,” says Petzold. “We had a whole city being united, which was now in the hands of the government. It was not a private property. It was our property. We could’ve made something beautiful.” So “someone like Undine who’s been living here for centuries, with all these changes, she is like a sad witness of our changing times. So this was our idea.”
Reviewing Undine for Sight & Sound,Giovanni Marchini Camia observes that “the notion of imperfect regeneration emerges both as a structuring principle, in the narrative’s many doublings and déjà vus, and a recurring motif: in the keepsake diver figurine that Undine breaks and glues back together; in Christoph’s job as an industrial diver, welding a dam’s damaged underwater turbines; in the cycle of destruction and reconstruction that defines the history of Berlin.”
As J. Hoberman writes in the New York Review of Books,Undine eventually “plunges decisively into the supernatural, with accidents, acts of vengeance, vanishings, and intimations of Wuthering Heights.” Back in Sight & Sound,Jonathan Romney suggests that Petzold “teasingly invites us to accept the drama as being situated between realism and fairy tale, in a zone of narrative logic akin to dream. It’s no accident that at different points Christoph and Undine doze off in broad daylight; and Petzold has claimed the eminently oneiric Vertigo as one of the film’s inspirations.” For Newcity Film’s Ray Pride, “Petzold has grown into the role of a master of the cumulative power of elegant drama—the layers of fantasy these characters create for themselves are epic but tangible—but also of the smashing payoff.”
Undine is the first in a projected trilogy of films that will transpose myths rooted in the elements to contemporary settings. He tells Dustin Chang that, after spending a week in bed with Covid last year, he ditched the dystopian screenplay he’d completed. “I’m not interested in dystopia anymore,” he says. Bed-ridden, he watched his way through an Eric Rohmer box set. “I was so impressed by Rohmer’s films, so I started writing a new story, and I am now finished with the script,” he says. In this Rohmer-inspired story, a group of young people spend the summer by the Baltic Sea. The forest catches fire, “and their desire and their hearts are also burning, and the fire in the end is out of control.” Paula Beer will star.
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