'Undine' Review: Christian Petzold's Modern Fairy Tale Romance Washes Over You [NYFF 2020]

For such a romantic, Christian Petzold sure likes to keep his audience at arm's length. The German director of alt-history star-crossed romances like the 2018 stunner Transit ventures into folklore with his latest cosmic romance Undine, a chilly, cryptic film that spends most of its runtime searching for a soul. Whether it finds it finds it or not is up for debate, but there's no question that Undine is a lush, transporting affair whose enigmatic magic laps at your feet and slowly washes over you.

Teaming up with his Transit stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski once again, Petzold puts a contemporary spin on an old folk tale: that of the undine, an ancient water nymph that lacks only one thing — a soul. To gain that soul, an undine must marry a human being, rendering them mortal but delivering unto them an immortal human soul. Beer plays the title character, a perpetually lovelorn woman named Undine with piercing eyes, who warns her latest lover that if he breaks up with her, she would have to kill him. It sounds like the kind of desperate plea that any heartbroken woman would say to her dismissive lover, and Petzold plays up the soap of it in his most overtly melodramatic film yet.

Undine reels from the break-up, trudging through her job as a historian and tour guide for the Berlin City Museum, where she catches the eye of industrial diver Christoph (Rogowski). At the café where her last lover had broken up with her, Christoph approaches her, awed by her presentation at the museum. It's here where Petzold flexes his particular brand of surrealism, telegraphing the sparks of love at first sight through the dramatic shattering of an aquarium near Undine and Christoph, drenching both of them in water and dying fish as they embrace each other in defense. It's a striking image that Petzold will continue to return to — that of water not as a site of death or rebirth, but of the complete, all-consuming nature of love.

Petzold takes the audience on a whirlwind journey through Undine and Christoph's romance, which quickly moves along and distracts Undine from her last heartbreak. They flirt, they gush, they catch each other at the train station, they show each others' workplaces to one another. Undine rehearses her latest tour monologue to Christoph, who stares at her in awe, while Christoph takes her diving — only for her to disappear for a moment, apparently dragged away by a giant catfish, then reappear again as if nothing had happened. And Petzold lavishes a shocking amount of attention to the Berlin cityscape and the miniature models that Undine is so familiar with, letting the camera linger on the empty spots where Undine goes through her life. It's almost mundane, with Petzold rarely making allusions to Undine's nature or past, making the viewer question whether these strange happenings are all in their head. And Undine herself seems just as surprised when these mystical occurrences happen around her, more than willing to ignore them in favor of her newfound lover.

Petzold never makes entirely clear that Undine is rooted in the supernatural, until moments of magical realism come creeping in. A shattered aquarium that trembles with the anticipation of two would-be lovers meeting for the first time, a woman kidnapped by a giant catfish, an impossible phone call. They all layer onto this star-crossed romance that Beer and Rogowski — longtime collaborators with Petzold whose chemistry is always off the charts — are more than able to convincingly sell. It's as if the fates had brought them together, before they would inevitably tear them apart. Few other cinematic couples can sell love at first sight like Beer and Rogowski, and with Petzold's steady hand guiding them, they elevate the simple melodrama of their relationship into one fit for the cosmos.

Perhaps the dark fairy tale aspects unfold too late in Undine, which is a mythic melodrama with emphasis on the melodrama. But its disquieting moments of magical realism paired with the all-consuming romance shared between Undine and Christoph — which feels as grand and tragic as the best cinematic love stories — add some warmth to Undine's chilly, cosmic exterior.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10