While the glory days of the New German Cinema of the 1970s are long gone, Christian Petzold remains the one contemporary German director who has made an impact on the film-going public and become an art house favorite. The best-known figure of the so-called “Berlin School” (a loose aggregation of directors, many of whom studied at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin during the 1990s), Petzold combines a fondness for American genre cinema with a penchant for political analysis that became evident in the scripts he wrote with his former teacher, the late leftist documentarian Harun Farocki.
Petzold’s most noteworthy features, several of which star the versatile Nina Hoss, explore either the more sinister and rapacious aspects of post-war German capitalism (Yella is perhaps the best example) or the darker crevices of the German past, whether the aftermath of Nazism in Phoenix or, as in Barbara, the repressive legacy of East German Stalinism. 2018’s Transit revised Anna Seghers’ novel chronicling the plight of refugees in France during the Nazi occupation in order to provide a historical gloss on the resurgence of European fascism during our own ongoing international refugee crisis.
Undine, Petzold’s latest film—which premiered in competition on Sunday at the Berlin Film Festival—is something of a head-scratcher. Although it unites the stars of Transit—Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski—in another tale of doomed romance, the social and political implications of this fairy tale for adults are more difficult to disentangle.
The titular Undine, portrayed by Beer, is an updated version of the mythological water nymph that seduces a man to gain an immortal soul and vows to kill him if he proves unfaithful. Given that the sexist implications of this parable are all too apparent, Petzold’s refurbishing of this hoary myth endeavors to provide his heroine with a sense of agency. Petzold has expressed his admiration for the German novelist Ingeborg Bachmann’s Undine Leaves, a feminist reworking of the tale in which the water nymph, usually an object of desire determined to terrify men, narrates her own story.
Petzold’s Undine, however, leads something of a double life. In her day job, she’s a historian and expert in urban planning who uses her expertise to lecture foreigners on the implications of Berlin’s ever-shifting architectural landscape at the Senate Department for Urban Development. In this realm, where rationality dominates, Undine is a calm presence: she dresses conservatively and speaks lucidly on how modern urban redevelopment often entails a deliberate deployment of historical amnesia. With an eerie scale model of Berlin as her reference point, she points out how all traces of the fifteen-century Berlin Palace were eradicated, in the name of proletarian solidarity, by the East Germans. Now, in neoliberal 2020, the shape-shifting former castle has metamorphosed into the Humboldt Forum, a museum and cultural center.
After hours, Undine lets down her hair, both literally and figuratively. She’s also as much of a chameleon as the newly christened Humboldt Forum. Spurned by Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), her caddish lover, in a picturesque café, she soon encounters Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who shares her love of water and the creatures of the deep. In the film’s most visually striking sequence, the couple discovers their shared destiny when an aquarium accidentally shatters inside the same fateful café. Total immersion has never been so blissful.
The rest of the film flirts with ludicrousness in a manner that will enchant Petzold’s admirers and enrage his detractors. In his defense, it’s unreasonable to expect films to be always reducible to an easily digestible socio-political message. A fable for our times riddled with ambiguities, the film is clearly grappling with questions of female autonomy and reinvention—even though its heroine resembles a strikingly intelligent mermaid with a mind of her own.
Working with his frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Hans Fromm, Petzold captures a milieu lodged between earth and water that recalls both Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries and sci-fi epics such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And Beer and Rogowski’s earnestness ensures that a potentially kitschy premise never becomes an exercise in self-parody. Undine may ultimately be regarded as minor Petzold. But it’s also not a film that can be easily dismissed, or forgotten.