▶︎ Undine screens in the BFI London Film Festival 12-15 October 2020 in cinemas around the UK and on BFI Player.

Directors often like to lay out their thematic preoccupations by having a character give a history lesson, a trope that almost always results clunkily didactic. Christian Petzold is among the few capable of pulling it off, and may well be the first to render it erotic. For the two lovers of Undine, a lecture on Berlin’s urban development makes for the sexiest pillow talk. Sitting in bed naked, a duvet wrapped around his shoulders, Christoph gazes up at Undine with smitten countenance as she stands above him, describing the cityscape’s mutations – a spectator entranced by a ravishingly rendered disquisition on recent German history. As such, the scene functions as a synecdoche for Petzold’s uniquely seductive cinema.

Working again with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, the leads of his magisterial Transit, Petzold appropriates the mythological figure of the undine – a water nymph whose many incarnations include the Little Mermaid – to fashion a love story that doubles as a myth about Berlin.

In the opening scene, Undine’s boyfriend leaves her for another woman. She implores him to stay: “Otherwise I will have to kill you,” she warns him without desperation or hyperbole; her tone suggests inevitability. Were the boyfriend clued in to the traditional dictates of her unlikely name, he’d know that fatal consequences await the man who betrays her. But the inexorable workings of fate, palpable in the narrative’s every turn, are temporarily deflected by the appearance of Rogowski’s Christoph and a coup de foudre in the form of an exploding aquarium.

In addition to baptising their romance, this event introduces two elements heretofore largely if not wholly absent from Petzold’s filmography: fantasy and humour. As Undine first walks past the massive fish tank in a café, the diver figurine inside the water calls out to her, enabling the meeting with Christoph. A moment later they are lying on the ground, drenched and love-struck amongst flapping goldfish. A waiter walks in and, unfazed by the very real possibility they could have been killed, starts yelling at them, “You assholes! I hope you have good insurance.” Such touches, which include a giant and possibly magical catfish named Big Günther, keep the film off-kilter and prevent it from succumbing to its overt symbolism.

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Franz Rogowski as Christoph and Paula Beer as the titular Undine

The aquarium is seen again later with its glass replaced, seemingly identical until a closer look reveals evidence of the accident. Traces, remnants, scars – 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.

The latter is strikingly illustrated in an early scene of Undine giving a guided tour to a group of tourists. While she outlines the trajectory of Berlin’s urban development across the 20th century, the camera glides over miniature models of the capital whose variously coloured buildings indicate the planned reconstruction after World War II and at the time of reunification. Petzold sets the action in Mitte, the central area formerly divided by the border between East and West that was left covered with swathes of wasteland after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These have since been filled with the anonymous, hastily erected buildings that make up the backdrop as the characters walk through the city, navigating a brand-new landscape of non-places, to use anthropologist Marc Augé’s term: the signature spaces of modernity, bereft of history and soulless.

The undine of lore comes out of the water to find love and thus obtain a soul. Berlin, a city that emerged from a swamp, has embarked on this quest again and again. Petzold’s ambiguously hopeful film is a declaration of love, despite the knowledge that Undine will eventually have to return to the water.

Originally published: 29 February 2020