When it comes to love, German director Christian Petzold likes stories where romance becomes a laborious undertaking. The director of “Phoenix” and “Barbara” returns with his 9th film ditching the historical undercurrent usually found in his work for one based on mythology. The stars of Petzold’s last film “Transit” reunite giving Franz Rogowskiand and Paula Beer another shot at passion. Based on the fable of the water nymph with a penchant for humans, “Undine” exists on a dreamy plain that just skirts the supernatural waters. Mesmerizing yet a bit too restrained with beautiful cinematography by Hans Fromm.

Review

UNDINE (2021)
Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Jacob Matschenz, Anne Ratte-Polle, Rafael Stachowiak, José Barros
Directed by Christian Petzold

Paula Beer is in line to become Petzold’s new golden girl — a title previously held by Nina Hoss — as she appears for the second consecutive time in a film by the writer-director after starring in 2019’s “Transit” opposite Franz Rogowski who is also back to once again play her love interest. Does this mean he’s in line to become Petzold’s new golden boy? Huh? BTW, has anyone noticed how Rogowski resembles American actor-musician David Patrick Kelly best known for uttering the line “Warriors…come out to play-ee-ay!”?

Somewhere between “The Little Mermaid” and “Lure” lies 2021’s “Undine.” Leave it to Petzold to get weighty with the supernatural. The Undine myth which stems from Paracelsus has grown into many variations, usually involving an elemental (in this case water) creature who falls in love with a human but at a cost. Every great love story is marred by tragedy. For the German director’s interpretation, there wasn’t a lot of research that went into the myth. Petzold relied on the stories passed down from his childhood and besides, the film is grounded by a very human love story that saves any witchery for the final act.

Undine (Paula Beer) works as a historian in a Berlin Museum where she gives guided tours using large-scale models to illustrate the city’s rebuilding after WWII and redevelopment after reunification. A small café situated across the street becomes much more than a place to grab an espresso, for Undine it represents a life-altering hub. That’s where her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) breaks her heart for another woman and where she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski) who literally sweeps her off her feet by shattering a huge aquarium that knocks both of them down in a scene filled with symbolism.

If Undine is truly a water sprite, there are no clues for the audience to procure. But if she is, Christoph would be her ideal mate. He spends a considerable amount of time underwater as a welder and he seems like a faithful guy who would never break her heart.

The film’s surreal tone is contrasted by Petzold’s determination to ground the love story in realism. These are just two lovers trying to make it in a complex world. But what about that giant catfish that Christoph keeps encountering? And then there’s the time that Undine tells Johannes that she must “kill him” for breaking up with her. Is that party of a mythological curse or is she just a psychotic girlfriend? The fun is finding out as Rogowski and Beer, two great performers, give it another go in the captivating film by one of Germany’s best filmmakers who is fascinated by the past but fixated on the present.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in select theaters and available PVOD

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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