Christian Petzold is a director renowned for his ability to bring historical narratives into our modern times with ease. His previous films, Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit have all grappled with German history while seamlessly drawing parallels with today. His latest film, Undine, is perhaps his most ambitious attempt to do this – based on the ancient myth of the same name.
Petzold’s take on the myth of the Undine is elusive at best, perhaps purposefully, myths and legends of course have many versions and it is plausible that the director did not want to find himself restrained by a particular interpretation. The basics of the story revolve around a water nymph who is allowed to become human when she falls in love with a man, however if that man is unfaithful then the two must perish, with the nymph Undine returning to the water.
Undine takes its source material and turns it into a story of co-dependency and freedom. Petzold has long been a director heralded for the intelligence and fullness of his female characters, and Undine is no different. The titular character, played by the masterful Paula Beer (Transit), is a historian who gives talks about the history of the Berlin Palace. Petzold uses her role as a historian to create a thread running right through Germany’s history.
The film’s story follows Undine as she attempts to wriggle out of the curse which binds her to men, not to say that she does not enjoy her lovers company, but more that she is a character independent of him, one with motives, dreams, and ambitions beyond his desire. Thus, the looseness with which Petzold approaches the myth creates a certain tension. We as a viewer never know when Undine is about to go too far, the rules of play are very much hidden.
Undine transitions from drama to romance to almost something of a horror before quickly reasserting itself as a drama. All of this packed into a ninety-minute means that it is hard to feel settled with the film and creates a sense of vagueness in its message. Regardless, the skill with which Petzold navigates us through the mystical world of Undine is never short of captivating. The chemistry between Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, who also starred in his previous film Transit, is sublimely tender and tactile.
Despite being perhaps his most ambiguous film yet, Undine still manages to create a playful adaptation from a myth which allows for such indistinctions. The watery legend takes on a definitively Petzold guise, with its central character desperate for an independence that allows room for love. Undine is a bold film that captures the very elusiveness that makes mythology so intriguing, sacrificing clarity for the murkiness of the waters its story inhabits.