Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Undine is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema from 2 April 2021.

One of the most adventurous storytellers in contemporary cinema, the German writer-director Christian Petzold makes films in which, you might say, the real protagonist is the story. Yes, we want to know what happens to his heroines and heroes, but just as involving are the transformations of the narrative itself – its unpredictable changes of shape and direction, its loops, repetitions, shifts of register. Not that Petzold is a purely formalist storyteller – but he is certainly a detached master of dramatic irony. He demands a certain sceptical detachment from his viewers too, otherwise we might tear our hair out in disbelief at his films’ provocative flouting of plausibility.

A woman who lives her life not realising she is already dead (Yella, 2007), another whom no one recognises even though reconstructive facial surgery has made her exactly resemble herself (Phoenix, 2014): Petzold’s films often defy conventional logic to the degree that, however firmly rooted in the recognisable world, they are less narratives in any realist sense than fables. His new film Undine is essentially a fairytale – the first of three planned films inspired by folk myth and thematically based on elements.

Franz Rogowski as Christoph in Undine

The first element is water: Undine is based on the German story of the water nymph published in 1811 by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquet. In Petzold’s hands, the myth underlies an ostensibly realist drama: that is, lies beneath its surface, or its waterline. Its modern-day Undine is a rationalist, a historian specialising in urban planning and the transformation of Berlin over centuries. But she also seems haunted by a destiny that accompanies her name: in the opening scene, like the nymph in the story, she tells her feckless lover that if he leaves her, she will kill him. Is this callow rhetoric, the voice of amour fou, or plain madness? We might suspect the latter when Undine settles scores with Johannes, in a scene that lurches into lurid melodrama – but that would be to rationalise away the film’s dimension of myth.

Rejected by Johannes, Undine promptly encounters the man who is clearly fated for her: Christoph, an industrial diver who bumps into her in a café. More precisely, he bumps into a shelf, causing a fishtank to fall on the pair, sealing their union with a comical – and erotically charged – drenching. Water imagery runs throughout the film: the diver figurine that Christoph gives Undine; ‘Big Günther’, the giant catfish that Christoph encounters; the swimming-pool where Johannes finally pays for his fecklessness.

Petzold teasingly invites us to accept the drama as being situated between realism and fairytale, in a zone of narrative logic akin to dream.

All these images are anchored in a contemporary reality made concrete by specific references to German locations, right down to exact Berlin addresses. At the same time, Undine is informed by a supernatural dimension of a kind that, till now, Petzold has overtly invoked only in Yella. Undine’s first encounter with Christoph is presaged by an unexplained male voice calling her name – seemingly from the fishtank – which also prefigures his cry later, when he miraculously awakes from a coma.

There’s the inexplicable episode in which, diving in the lake, Christoph sees (or appears to see) Undine, mermaid-like, hitching a ride with Big Günther. And there’s the mystery of Christoph phoning Undine, having somehow sensed that her “heart skipped a beat” when Johannes walked past on a bridge; Undine later learns that the call came when Christoph was already in a coma.

Paula Beer as the titular Undine and Franz Rogowski as Christoph

Is all of this – or any of it – really happening? Petzold doesn’t ask us to rationalise these incidents, but teasingly invites us to accept the drama as being situated between realism and fairytale, 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. What makes Undine uncanny, as with many Petzold films, is the sense that something is repeating itself, that an earlier drama is being re-enacted beneath the one we’re watching. Just as Yella reworked the cult chiller Carnival of Souls (1962) and Petzold’s 2008 Jerichow was a variation on the often filmed The Postman Always Rings Twice, Undine is underwritten by a chain of repetitions. There are multiple visits to the café, multiple train journeys and returns to the fateful lake, seemingly a transit zone between life and death; individual shots too are replayed, with Undine twice gazing at Johannes from a window at her workplace.

Beneath the present is always the past. Both Christoph and Undine are divers: just as he explores a world underwater, so Undine professionally dives into the history of Berlin, a city built on a swamp, in which dead buildings resurface to be reborn. One building she describes is the Humboldt Forum, a 21st-century museum built within the structure of an 18th-century palace – just as Petzold has built his film around an early 19th-century story embodying that period’s German romanticism.

Undine (2020)

All this might seem merely conceptual and sterile, if not for the vigorous life the film exudes, not least in its humour: the fishtank episode, the unsympathetic waiter who bans the couple from the premises, Christoph’s method of artificial resuscitation to the rhythm of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive.

That energy also comes radiantly from leads Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, reunited after playing considerably more downbeat, careworn characters in Petzold’s last film Transit (2018). There is something genuinely innocent, even exuberantly childlike about Rogowski here, making Christoph fizzle with lovestruck joy as he runs smiling alongside Undine’s train. And Beer, combining fragility, toughness and a tremor of dangerous intent, catches a set of mesmerisingly volatile contradictions in a character at once rooted firmly in a world of concrete facts, and yet haunted by history, myth and, so it seems, supernatural predestination.

If we take this story at face value, then Undine is genuinely haunted, or possessed, by the mythic resonances of her name just as Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo is supposedly haunted by her dead precursor Carlotta Valdes. In Petzold’s story, however, the heroine is always firmly at the centre, and fully assumes her mythic destiny – as we see in a final shot which tantalisingly bobs, as if from Undine’s POV, on the very surface of the lake’s water, marking the fragile membrane on which the reality of this fiction is precariously located.

Further reading

Undine is Christian Petzold’s slippery love song to Berlin

By Giovanni Marchini Camia

Undine is Christian Petzold’s slippery love song to Berlin

Transit first look: Europe’s past is now in Christian Petzold’s purgatorial palimpsest

By Giovanni Marchini Camia

Transit first look: Europe’s past is now in Christian Petzold’s purgatorial palimpsest

Christian Petzold on discovering The Deer Hunter one wintry night in Berlin

By Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold on discovering The Deer Hunter one wintry night in Berlin

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

Find out more and get a copy