We start right in the middle of a breakup at a Berlin cafe seeing Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) process what is happening. The love of her life, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) has decided to end things with the museum historian, seemingly starting up with another woman during his relationship with Undine. He has betrayed her, and as an “undine”— she must kill him for his transgressions and return to where she came from.
Undine’s task takes a turn when she comes across Christoph (Franz Rogowski). There’s something fated, like Christoph came in search of Undine prompted by outside forces. No matter how they found each other, the two grow together quickly and Undine is engorged in a new love for Christoph. Whether this lasts or not is anyone’s guess.
One would be forgiven if they are not knowledgeable of the mythology concerning Undine, for it is not as known widely as the more legendary figures found in Greek and Norse mythology. Coming from German mythology, an undine is frequently depicted as an ageless, God-like female being tied to the water, often in search of love on Earth. They can inhabit a female body, and if they find their special someone, they lose much of their God-like status but in return, receive an immortal soul. However, should their special someone run astray and commit infidelity, they have no choice but to kill their lover and return to the sea for good.
Lot to take in from a story perspective, right? Famed German writer/director Christian Petzold doesn’t care, and do not expect any detail on an undine’s “Who”/”What”/”Where”/”When”/”Why”/”How”; Petzold somewhat expects his viewers to know a bit of history on it coming in. Early on it is jarring, but take solace in the idea as the runtime moves along that this is merely a story with a few fantastical elements and not a complete fantasy. Here, Petzold simply enjoys writing a beautiful love story, one that emerges from the brink of emotional turmoil. On a base level, he seems to say two things. One? Love is available to anyone at any time if we keep our hearts open to receiving it, even in times of intense heartbreak. Two? To quote Rick Deckard, “Sometimes to love someone, you gotta be a stranger.”
Using water as both a metaphor and setting, Petzold’s Undine is most alive visually when he submerges viewers into the deep end. Whether that be many leagues under the sea in a diving expedition, dousing some characters after a hallway aquarium breaks, using a wide shot to envelop someone’s relationship to the ocean, or silently measuring a swimmer doing laps before action is taken, it is those scenes that give the movie a pristine, meditative, Shape of Water-like spiritual bend, without the fishy stuff.
Lame double entendre aside, Undine is centered firmly around Beer. Her facade is the one fixated on as we enter the movie, and the one that sticks with us after conclusion. The work Beer (as well as her early tag-team partner Matschenz) puts out in the first five minutes on screen should not go unnoticed, for it takes a high level of skill and command to draw an audience in immediately into a relationship and its dissolution that we really know nothing about. Beer’s second tag-team partner in Rogowski provides a dose of levity, his character’s slight awkwardness wrapped within a legitimately pleasing personality.
Irregular in story source material but very familiar thematically, Undine uses its lightly-known mythology to provide a different ebb and flow to a traditional love triangle. Does it always make the cleanest sense? No, and neither does love, which makes its murkiness pretty fitting.
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