Credit: Christian Schulz/Schramm Film
by Daniel Gorman Film

Best Films of 2021: Undine

January 8, 2022

Honorable Mention: After the WWII-set Phoenix (a production so emotionally taxing it seems to have severed the relationship between the director and his long-time collaborator Nina Hoss) and the historical dystopian Transit, which manipulated temporal signifiers to portray the fascism of the past encroaching upon and swallowing up the present day, it’s no wonder Christian Petzold set his sights on a (deceptively slight) flight of fancy like Undine, retelling the myth of a water nymph who falls in love with a human, but who curses their lover to death if they are ever unfaithful. The film begins with Undine (Paula Beer) being dumped by her beau, whom she immediately threatens to kill. Unswayed by this emotional threat, the man leaves. But soon Undine meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), and a new love affair blossoms. It’s a bizarre meet-cute, as a nearby fish tank explodes and showers them both with water and broken glass. Intimations of violence abound, as small flecks of blood soak through Undine’s white blouse; later, spilled red wine stains a wall and becomes a portentous metaphor that haunts this fragile relationship. 

Haunting is the operative mode here, with hints of the supernatural hovering around the margins of the narrative while an otherwise straightforward romantic drama plays out. Petzold is no stranger to genre; Yella is a fairly faithful remake of the classic ghost story Carnival of Souls, while Hitchcock’s seminal Vertigo (a different kind of ghost story) informs Phoenix. And indeed, one of Petzold’s earliest films is simply titled Ghosts. Petzold is also one our key chroniclers of a particular kind of contemporary malaise, that of a modern world that came through World War II, the rise and fall of Soviet-style communism, and the reunification of East and West Berlin only to become mired in a neoliberal new world order. He’s fascinated by the hollowed-out liminal spaces that speak to the scars of late-capitalism — banks, hotels, industrial parks, etc. Here, Undine is a historian of urban developments at a Berlin museum, giving guided tours of scale models representing different periods of German history. At one point, directing a group toward a model of a divided Berlin just before the Wall fell, she says that it “represents an idealized self before its collapse.” While the dialectic between these history lessons and the film’s romanticism is sometimes opaque, Undine seems to represent both an idealized romantic relationship and its inevitable, even violent, collapse. Regardless, it’s a dizzyingly romantic film; Beer and Rogowski have an electric chemistry beneath the otherwise calm veneer of Petzold’s precise compositions, a playful physicality that pulsates with raw emotion. Ultimately, Undine fully embraces its mythic origins, eventually making literal what was before merely suggested. Love and loss are part of the same cycle, and like history, one must move on and build something new out of the ashes of the old.