Christian Petzold’s Undine is the film equivalent of mercury; it is difficult to pin down. As the film unfolds, it shapeshifts from drama, to romance, to allegory, to fantasy. Its mutability is precisely what makes it compelling. The mortar that holds everything together is Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer). Undine works in the office of Urban Development and Housing. She is a historian who gives talks on the history of Berlin to guests and tourists. She is professional and in total control of her subject; yet her personal life is falling apart.
The film opens with a shot of Undine in the midst of processing some terrible news. Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) announces he has a new woman in his life and is breaking up with Undine. Undine is shattered. From there, the story gradually becomes more and more fantastical. Undine has a chance encounter with Christoph (Franz Rogowski) involving an incident with a fish tank. Post-fish tank, she and Christoph profoundly fall for each other. Revealing more of the plot would ruin the magic of Petzold’s narrative; and it is precisely this magic, one expertly employed by Petzold, that is capable of seducing even the most hardened and cynical film realist. If one lets their realist guard down, Undine will seduce you with its siren call.
Petzold is no stranger to collaborating with lead actresses. His collaborations with Nina Hoss (Yella, Jerichow, and Barbara) brought to the screen some of the most complex female characters in the last two decades of European cinema. Petzold has once again struck gold with his lead actress. Paula Beer seems capable of doing everything and doing it exceptionally. In one scene she is emotionally devasted, in the next she has to put on her brave professional face and give a history of Berlin to tourists. Beer totally convinces us that she has had her heart shattered; hence, we wish we could step into the screen and comfort her. She is able to conjure empathy in us. We do not want her to be hurt again. When she is bought brought back to life by Christoph—both figuratively and literally—her smile is like a powerplant capable of powering the whole of Berlin. Beer captures that bittersweet feeling of departure and longing in the early stages of love. She also captures that moment when you realize you have committed a huge mistake and your relationship is on the verge of collapse. We could spend hours watching Beer on screen. It should be no surprise she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for her performance in Undine.
Undine is textually a folk tale and a romance. Sub-textually, Undine is about how cities interact with, connect, and transform us. We inhabit cities like Berlin, and they inhabit us. Cities have their flows and rhythms—drainage systems, traffic patterns, architectures, lunchtimes, happy hours, closing times. Cities also have their blockages. These flows and blockages fuse onto us. This is no mere philosophical abstraction. Anyone caught in a traffic bottleneck or enjoying a smooth ride on a city subway can appreciate in a very tangible way how cities inhabit us through their blockages and flows. Cities like Berlin have been mapped out, planned, they have grown, collapsed, and been rebuilt. Berlin’s destruction after WWII and the GDR’s collapse were cataclysmic events felt by city and inhabitants. Cities can never be completed. They are assemblages in constant transformation. In that sense, they are just like us. Our lives, just like Undine’s, are always in a state of expansion, contraction, rebuilding, and transformation.
Petzold has given us a beautiful tale about a woman and a city. Everything in Undine is liquid, it flows. The city flows into the personal lives of inhabitants, the inhabitants flow with objects—trains, fish tanks, turbines. Cities, objects, and individuals all inter-act in Undine. One cannot help but think of another German, Martin Heidegger. Undine is Heideggerian in showing us how everything fits in a meaningful network of purposes, functions, individuals, and lives experiencing the rhythms of existence, lives like Undine’s.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.