‘Undine’ Review: Love In and Out of the Water

Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, who made an impression in 2019’s “Transit,” are reunited by the director Christian Petzold for this adaptation of a European myth.

By Glenn Kenny

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At an outdoor table of a small cafe situated on the ground floor of an imposing brick building, two lovers are ending their affair. The woman of the pair, not happy with this development, bickers with the man about a voice mail message. When that thread is exhausted, she tells him matter-of-factly, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.”

Well, that escalated quickly. The woman, whose name is Undine — played with equal parts passion and calculation by Paula Beer — retains our sympathy even as she makes that unreasonable pronouncement. Because, as it happens, it’s not unreasonable. Undine is not mentally ill or morally reckless. What she’s talking about here is fate. With seemingly minimal means, the writer-director Christian Petzold makes the viewer understand this, mere minutes into the story, adapted from a European myth about a water sprite who can fall in love and become human, but who must suffer greatly if her lover is unfaithful.

This modern-day Undine is, on land, a historian who instructs wealthy tourists on Berlin’s aesthetic and political schisms over the centuries. These sessions lead to sometimes tense exchanges: an evocation of “an architecture in keeping with national tradition,” for example, prompts the question, “Hadn’t the Nazis discredited nationalism?”

But Petzold doesn’t hammer the potential for political parable or allegory here — which is a little surprising, given the lessons on modern German history he offers up in pictures such as “Phoenix.” Instead, this fractured not-quite-fairy-tale parcels out provocative instances of magical realism on arguably larger themes.

After being ditched by her sniveling partner Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), Undine almost immediately retreats into the cafe, where she fixates on a small statue of a helmeted sea diver in a fish tank. The aquarium vibrates and soon explodes, knocking her to the floor with another man, Christoph (Franz Rogowski). They’re both drenched, and she’s a bit cut up by shards from the tank.

This peculiar meet-cute is handled straightforwardly (the movie’s clean, economical production design, by Merlin Ortner, grounds the picture in this respect), as are the story’s other fantastic elements — including an ethereal catfish and a diving outing during which Undine mysteriously sheds her wet suit, flippers and oxygen tank.

Undine’s new love — the kind, compassionate and knowing Christoph (he and Beer were also paired in Petzold’s prior film, “Transit”) — is himself a diver. Being near him makes Undine feel more at home, so to speak. But Christoph’s work, welding underwater turbines, is risky. Soon Undine is presented with a dilemma that forces her to confront a fate she had hoped her new happiness would help her avoid.

Petzold’s cinematic storytelling style is elegant but unfussy, perfectly complemented by Hans Fromm’s cinematography and by the sparely used music, which includes the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson’s dreamy interpretations of Bach and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” “Undine” is ultimately more enigmatic than most of Petzold’s work. It is also, like its title character, eerily beautiful. While it could well serve as a high-end date movie, it’s also something more.

Not rated. In German and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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