Christian Petzold’s “Undine” opens with a stark and unusual breakup.
Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and Undine (Paula Beer) are having coffee outside at their favorite cafe, he tells her that it’s over, and she says that she will have to kill him in retaliation, as if such a conclusion is foregone. This scene isn’t staged melodramatically but with a deep well of resignation and implication that has become Petzold’s tonal specialty. The dialogue, at least as subtitled for English audiences who don’t speak German, is pared to the bone, and the editing is unshowy yet razor sharp. It’s a hell of an opening, suggesting the sort of romantic ghost story that drove Petzold films such as “Phoenix.”
Throughout “Undine,” Petzold maintains this tone almost to a fault, as it’s a spellbinding movie that remains aloof and vague. Petzold’s films are highly allegorical of Germany’s checkered past and here the writer and director is fanatically devoted to several nesting metaphors. Undine works at Berlin’s Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing, where she speaks on the vast interrelationships between the country’s history and its architecture. A surprising and excessive amount of running time is devoted to her lectures and Petzold and Beer imbue these potentially dry scenes with hypnotic power, rhyming Undine’s emotional baggage with the demons of her country. In one wonderful juxtaposition, Undine sees Johannes sitting at the cafe within the vast models she uses to complement her presentations. At a certain point though, the movie feels as if it’s dominated by themes and diagrams rather than a living and breathing story.
Nearly as soon as Undine and Johannes split up, she meets cute with Christoph (Franz Rogowski, who, like Beer, is from Petzold’s “Transit”), an industrial diver who works on turbines. Their jobs thematically link as both people are consumed in their way with digging up and maintaining Germany’s past. This meeting is another of the film’s high points, as Undine and Christoph are gazing at a fish tank, with a mystical figure of a diver at the bottom that appears to whisper to the woman. Not long afterward, the tank explodes and drenches the future lovers in water, as if the power of their attraction caused the accident. There’s something magical realist about “Undine” – the film’s title is a hint – though Petzold takes his precious time getting to the point.
It’s almost as if Petzold has taken the first act of a more conventional screenplay and stretched it out to feature length. Petzold’s more interested in maintaining an aura of romantic melancholia than in telling a straightforward story, and while he’s enough of a stylist to pull off such a gambit, the lovers here aren’t interesting enough, lacking the fire of the duo at the center of “Phoenix.” Beer is a haunting physical presence, subtly implying with her faraway gaze that Undine might not be exactly human, but the character is defined solely by her mysteriousness. Similarly, Christoph is very simply driven by his puppy love. The obstacle that may or may keep them apart – pertaining to Undine’s true identity – provides the film with surprisingly little friction. Petzold is skittish about his high concept and so he buries it in allusions, which can make for a transfixing but static cinematic experience.
“Undine” gets under your skin anyway. Petzold’s greatest, subtlest achievement here is the motif of recurrence that he establishes. Images, especially of the cafe, are repeated with different characters in different positions, suggesting how we replace one another in our romantic lives, which of course complements Undine’s lectures on the reshaping and reconstruction of city buildings. And certain compositions are uncannily powerful, such as when Christoph encounters a giant catfish that is something of a local myth. The greenish blue water engulfing Christoph suggests a great primordial realm – water has never quite looked this way in another movie.
Petzold wisely trusts such images to speak for themselves, as the film is engulfed by a sense of quiet that only intensifies the impression that we’re just on the cusp of discovering a major truth. “Undine” has a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, but a little old-fashioned narrative torque could’ve gone a long way toward waking the film out its self-consciously arty slumber.