Published Oct 14, 2020German director Christian Petzold takes on bold premises, working with interesting and difficult ideas without losing the emotional dimension to his characters. In Phoenix, a woman with a new face investigates her old life; in Transit, a World War II love story is conspicuously filmed in the present; in his latest, Undine, he considers the form of a fairy tale — through a modern lens and through the specific history of his home — in ways that are fascinating, engrossing, and occasionally demanding of the viewer.
The pair from Transit, Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, are re-teamed as Undine and Christoph. The former is an academic guide, who we first see pleading with another man to not end their relationship. This is one of the first feats of Petzold: we go from her and this man at a café to her walking to her workplace and right into her giving a long talk on changes to Berlin's urban landscape, and all of it is completely engaging.
Christoph appreciates her talk, too, and follows her back to the café where an aquarium erupts over their heads and they both wind up laying on the ground in a pool or water and shattered glass, him appearing to her almost as if he were conjured. Their romance comes on quickly, but the sense that she's bound for tragedy, that it's fated in some way, can't be shaken.
Material around this film acknowledges that an inspiration or parallel to Undine are the stories around magical figures in water, creatures scorned and cursed in some way. A strength of the film is that the read supporting that isn't immediately apparent, especially because the film moves so easily between Beer and Rogowski. For each character, there are layers of reality, perception and magic that intersect and contrast in ways that invite an active audience while also putting some unwanted distance between them and the characters' journeys.
Petzold always sees questions of identity and trust as key ones, and him keeping the audience on uncertain footing with these details is in keeping with this interest. In Beer and Rogowski, he's found two good avatars, natural performers committed to the reality of his film and compelling to watch.
Festival du nouveau cinéma is taking place online from October 7 to 31. (Schramm Film Koerner & Weber)