Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Undine is a new film by Christian Petzold, and once again I can’t entirely get behind this movie, or somehow in front of it. It’s extremely well made, as usual with this director, and it knows just what it wants to do, which is somehow one of the problems I have with his work. Except for his previous movie, Transit, which I thought had authentic mystery afoot, Petzold’s movies always feel very exact and thought-out, with no effort wasted. With his films I often ask, What am I missing?, but I don’t think I’m missing anything. It’s all there.
Having confessed this misgiving, or failure on my part, I will say that Undine is as fluidly watchable as Petzold’s previous pictures. The two stars of Transit, Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, return here, with Beer (who won the Berlinale prize for Best Actress in 2020—the pandemic held up the movie’s general release) getting the lion’s share of the work this time. She plays a woman named Undine, who—and this is a glorious movie-job idea—gives tours of Berlin’s model city exhibit, an installation of municipal history in miniature. Rogowski plays Christoph, an industrial diver. They meet when an aquarium in a restaurant breaks apart and douses them, the first of many broken things in their brief but passionate involvement. What follows includes many watery scenes, as Petzold (working from his own original screenplay) stirs in variations on the mermaidy mythology suggested by Undine’s name.
The movie is full of suggestive angles and handsome colors (what a relief it was, when Transit appeared, to see a movie that actually deployed deep, rich colors, instead of washing everything out in the manner a la mode). There’s a particular restaurant in Undine (the one with the aquarium) with a courtyard outside Undine’s museum, which becomes a wonderfully realized setting, as indeed most of the film bristles with an insider’s view of non-touristy Berlin.
So it feels unfair to complain about a film that does what it wants to do very well. I suppose I’m disappointed that Undine seems like a step back from the intrigue of Transit. Petzold is very good at beginnings and endings (the final ten minutes of Phoenix are electrifying), and Undine opens with a sequence so good it operates in a wilder, more mysterious mode than the rest of the film. We are at that restaurant courtyard, mostly in close-up, as Undine is being dumped by a boyfriend (Jacob Matschenz). The dialogue is elliptical and wickedly precise—we’re catching up to what’s going on, as the scene has been joined mid-conversation. The boyfriend buys Undine a coffee and gets ready to leave. But she calmly tells him that he should understand that, of course, if he follows through on this, she will kill him. She looks serious. He looks worried. They both seem to know what she means, as though this has been talked about before, and is a very real thing. Then she has to get up and go, because she’s giving one of her Model City lectures, and she orders him not to leave the café. (She can see the courtyard from inside the museum.) And she leaves, and he stays.
What exactly goes on here? Is Undine really a mythological creature with dangerous attributes? Within a few minutes something happens to shift the storyline, and we are off on that. But Undine opens up tantalizing possibilities, left to simmer, that the rest of the movie doesn’t quite match.
June 4, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.