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If you happen to be familiar with European mythology, you’ll get what Undine is driving at right away. For the rest of us, it’s a film drenched in mystery. The titular protagonist is a German historian who gets broken up with at an outdoor cafe in the film’s opening scene. Her boyfriend has met someone else and is hoping to get away clean, but she stops him. “You can’t go,” she says, calmly. “If you leave, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” This wouldn’t be a crime of passion. It’s more like an obligation. If you understand Undine’s true nature, you won’t be surprised by the threat, but even for the uninitiated, the fatalism tracks. When you’re in love, there’s no crime worse than betrayal.
The latest film from acclaimed German filmmaker Christian Petzold works both as an inventive reimagining of an ancient myth and a heartfelt human romance. After her breakup, Undine (Paula Beer) forgets about revenge and falls quickly and deeply in love with Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who becomes smitten after watching her lecture at a local museum. They embark on a romance that seems to carry the weight of legend from the start. As an industrial diver, he works on underwater machinery. He notices her name on a stone deep in a lake, and brings her down there to see, but she gets carried off by a giant catfish and seems to drown for a moment before Christoph revives her—you know, that old yarn.
It’s a tricky tone that only Petzold could handle. In his prior two films, he has excelled at blending worlds without drawing attention to the trickery. His 2014 film Phoenix, about a woman who received facial reconstructive surgery after escaping from a concentration camp, avoided the nostalgic trappings of its era and instead was propelled by a rush of immediacy. It’s a rare story about the past that never feels like history. He did one better in 2018’s Transit, set in a Nazi-occupied Paris but with cell phones, security cameras, and other technology of the present. His films do the work of great science fiction, revealing new corners of humanity by depicting worlds slightly askew, but they do so without relying on superpowers or excessive world-building.
Undine places its supernatural elements on the same plane as its more grounded ones, creating a shared space somewhere between the earth and the heavens. Petzold gets off a few transcendent underwater images, but he’s equally spellbound by the faces of his actors. Rogowski has the visage of a young but experienced prizefighter, angular and askew but bursting with naïveté. It’s a compelling contrast to Beer, who is piercingly beautiful with an unmistakable intensity. When gazing at each other, their deep blue eyes connect to something ancient. With much of the film simply focused on their courtship, and Petzold wisely resisting the urge to lean into the mystical, Undine plays as a folk tale founded on human connection.
It’s also one rooted in history. Undine’s lectures on Berlin’s architecture, with a special focus on how the city’s landscape reflects its troubled past, comprise several long scenes. They add nothing to plot or character, but they signal an important slice of Petzold’s metaphor: that Undine is not only an avenger of her personal betrayals—tension arises when the ex-boyfriend returns late in the film—but a reminder of collective sins buried, in this case, under skyscrapers and outdoor cafes. At times, this feels like one angle too many; those long lectures are tiring. Still, it’s hard not to admire Petzold’s ambition in trying to locate something fundamental about his country’s character.
The only question is whether you want to learn more about Undine before you watch or simply to let the story wash over you. I’d suggest the latter. At its best, Undine is a sensory experience and not a history lesson. It’s a story that unfolds, not one that’s told. Petzold’s confidence as a mythmaker creates a frame that feels more than three-dimensional; it seems to stretch back in time forever. The fleeting moments between us become eternal. It’s a world you’ll want to swim in.
Undine is released in theaters and VOD on June 4.