In the last decade, Christian Petzold has emerged as Germany’s preeminent working filmmaker, rooting the country’s national strife in intimate stories that span its historical identity: With “Phoenix” (which depicts the immediate psychological turmoil in the aftermath of WWII), “Barbara” (the paranoia of East Germany in the Cold War), and “Transit” (the lingering fears of a return to fascism), Petzold has churned out an astute trilogy of thrillers steeped in German fixations.
His latest, “Undine,” will disappoint fans because it reduces those potent themes to a shallower romantic ghost story that never goes quite as deep as its predecessors. However, Petzold remains a master of capturing frantic characters doomed by dark obsessions, and while “Undine” is certainly a minor work, it still shows evidence of a master’s hand.
That starts with its taut opening scene, as the stern title character (Paula Beer, the object of desire in “Transit”) tells off her partner Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) as he reveals his relationship to another woman. Petzold frames the scene as a tight showdown between two stone-faced people, but it’s Undine who has scores the iciest line as she dashes off to work: “If you leave,” she says, “you have to die.” Then she’s off to her regular gig, leading tours about the history of Berlin’s urban development at the Stadtmuseum. It’s a brisk illustration of distinct Petzoldian fixations, as precise dilemmas fester against a broader sociopolitical backdrop. Unfortunately, this time around, nothing in “Undine” can match the sophistication of its setup.
The woman’s robotic demeanor suggests she might carry out her violent threat, but before that goes further, Undine comes across the prospects of a new beginning. Searching for Johannes at the cafe where she left him, she’s instead approached by Christoph (Franz Rogowski, Beer’s screen partner in “Transit”), a soft-spoken industrial diver entranced by her tour who follows her out the door. Before he can even finish asking her out, Petzold injects the scenario with a jolt of magic realism — a sudden burst of shattered glass that finds both characters soaked and lying on their backs as they careen into a passionate romance that rescues Undine from her despair.
At least, it has the potential to do that. As Christoph and Undine develop their relationship, Undine maintains an eerie connection to her unresolved breakup, which bubbles to the surface in a series of dreamlike twists. Much like the “Vertigo”-inspired “Phoenix,” Petzold imbues the material with a Hitchcockian build, as subtle moments drop hints of dark, invisible forces conspiring to complicate the situation. Undine may be losing her grip on reality, but reality has a few surprises in store for her as well.
But the narrative begins to strain from this focused scenario as the character follows her new boyfriend into the water, with a diving expedition that ends in a fleeting close call. From there, the plot slithers through a series of peculiar supernatural developments that fall short of the sophistication leading up to them, as if Petzold tried to slam a quirky romance into the center of an erotic thriller and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to fuse them together.
Still, there’s much to appreciate about the textures of his perceptive screenplay in small doses, especially the way it conveys Undine’s slippery relationship to the world around her through Beer’s commanding performance. In one of the more innovative twists, Undine engages in an unusual erotic moment with Christoph as he asks her to recite the factoids from her tour in a whole new context. It’s a wry meditation on the way a city’s surroundings can become personal to the point of fetishization, and how they lessen Undine’s ability to engage with the people who care about her. Meanwhile, Petzold maintains such a precise visual sense — wide angles that capture his characters in uncertain landscapes, plus intricate closeups loaded with unspoken feeling — that it can often feel sufficient to simply relish in the surfaces of “Undine” as it hurries along to an undercooked conclusion.
And while “Undine” doesn’t epitomize the power of Petzold’s other recent German dramas, it certainly fits well within the context of his expanded universe (it even stars the same actors from “Transit,” again playing an ill-fated couple, which adds another dimension to the haunting atmosphere). The difference is that those other movies had such clarity to their intentions that their ideas were unassailable, while “Undine” stands on slippery ground, lost in murky waves not unlike its lovesick protagonists.
“Undine” premiered in Competition at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.