When director Christian Petzold wrapped filming on Transit (2018), he liked the chemistry between his two lead actors—Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski—so much that he decided to give them another chance at love, casting them in Undine (2020), his latest film based on a short story he’d written. In an interview given to Cineuropa to promote his film, Petzold mused over the fairy tales he’d been telling his children and the ways the fates of these fictional women had reminded him of his own relationships with real ones. The novella Undine, a story about a water nymph who has to kill her love when he deserts her (by crying him to death) made him think of the relationship between directors and actresses, between muses and artists: “Isn't it a sort of perpetual betrayed love for all the Undines of this world? Don't men always dominate everything?”
There's a lot to unpack with a film as mysterious and allegorical as Undine. We take a deep dive into the depths of Undine's unconscious and explore its thematic use of water and repetition as a narrative device.
It’s true that a few seconds into Undine’s opening scene, for reasons I can’t quite place, I thought of the women I know whose relationships are like a game of snakes and ladders. If they hit something unwelcome, they slide into a very different kind of life. The film opens into a break-up, with the eponymous Undine (Beer) on the receiving end, and her soon to be ex-lover Johannes desperate to escape the tense conversation as quickly as possible, his mind on his new girlfriend. “If you leave me I'll have to kill you. You know that,” says Undine calmly, as if the couple has discussed such an outcome many times. According to the myth, the nymph has to murder her faithless lover and then return home to the water to wait for another man. But before this Undine is allowed to suffer very much, or exact her revenge, she's swept (by a tsunami of water from a giant fish tank) into a new relationship with Christoph (Rogowski), an industrial diver.
Critics have interpreted the film’s aquatic theme quite literally, one review called the character of Undine “water obsessed”, while others describe her as a water nymph. But it's a mistake to read her as the mermaid of mythology, or as the archetype of the betrayed woman who, as Petzold says “exists only through men.” The main themes in Undine transcend gender because, if there’s one thing that unites us, it’s our difficulty getting to grips with the experience of love. Water fills the film: the sound of it ringing in Undine’s ears when she realises she’s really been left and the force of it sweeping her towards Christoph. It accompanies supernatural events; a ghostly visitation, an impossible survival, Christoph’s sighting of a legendary catfish, the strange appearance of the word ‘Undine’ engraved into the foundations of a bridge, and the sound of her name whispered to her from the depths of a fish tank. Characters find themselves back at the same sites of water again and again, especially as relationships end. Between relationships, we try to figure out what went wrong. If we truly want to move forward, sometimes we try to find the unconscious drives that caused us to end up somewhere painful. What if water isn’t Undine’s home, but a symbol of those mysterious drives?
Both infidelity and death in the water recur in Petzold’s films, and repetition features strongly in Undine. When Undine inexplicably sheds her diving gear on an underwater expedition with Christoph and has to be rescued by him, she asks, like a child demanding another game of doctor and patient, “Can you revive me again?”. Characters find themselves back where they started, despite sprinting forwards with determination, just like in fairy tales similar to the one this film is based on. We learn these stories in childhood because they are repeated to us over and over again, just as we learn romantic love before we can even remember it, programmed to choose a certain type of person until we can break the spell and think for ourselves. In his talk on love, the popular philosopher Alain de Botton says, “The problem is that when we love in adulthood, we're not necessarily drawn to people who will make us happy, we are drawn to people who will feel familiar, and very often happiness and familiarity have drifted apart, because the love we knew as children is not a love that was pure of certain, rather unhealthy or troublesome dynamics.” The love between Undine and Christoph is unnerving: it happens too fast, and the two appear to be hypnotised by one another, almost on autopilot. The repeated presence of water, a symbol of the unconscious, reminds the viewer that attraction, because it comes from somewhere too deep to identify, can often feel like fate.
In her work as a historian of architecture, Undine gives tours that she learns off by heart, by repetition. Her speciality is the town planning of Berlin, a city built on water with a traumatic past; war, shame, split and unification. Midway through the film she recites the story of the Humboldt Forum, a reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, which was damaged in World War II and then demolished despite protests in 1950, only to be rebuilt after German reunification, and finally completed in 2020. Her script ends with the words:
“In the centre of Berlin now stands a museum built in the 21st century in the form of an 18th-century ruler's palace. The deceptive part lies in the hypothesis that this makes no real difference, which is the same as claiming that progress is impossible.”
Like an incantation, Undine’s words seem to trigger the film’s deja vu moments, summoning Johannes, banishing Christoph and sending Undine back to where she started. Although by the end of the film, the characters have ended up in unexpected scenarios, it’s not all bad. Despite Petzold’s worries about the fate of objectified women and his characters’ thwarted romances, his film shows that, as long as it’s preceded by a dive into the unconscious, progress is possible.
Now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.