There’s something to be said for adding elements of fantasy or fairy-tales to love stories, and Christian Petzold’s water-based love story is as much a dark, but beautiful romance as it is a beguiling commentary of the modernisation of a rapidly developing Berlin.
Petzold opens the film in medias res with a tightly shot, claustrophobic and close-up conversation between the film’s titular character Undine (Paula Beer) and her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) who is breaking up with her. This opening scene perfectly conveys the nightmarish pain of a moment like this through the focus on Undine’s facial expressions and reactions, but it also serves as a great contrast for the love story that’s about to unfold.
After rushing back to her job as a historian holding lectures on the cities architectural development and history we swiftly learn that just like Berlin needed to be broken apart so it could come back together, that Undine’s breakup with Johannes was necessary for her to, as if by fate, meet Christoph (Franz Rogowski) in a moment of magical realism as they come together in the same café she was just heart-broken in, with the pair colliding in a hail of glass and cascading water as the café’s high suspended fish-tank inexplicably shatters, a real love-at-first-sight moment. This isn’t Undine’s original love story, but a better, reconstructed version.
There’s a lot of water used as metaphor, foreshadowing and water-based imagery in Undine, particularly when it comes to rebirth, life, fate, inevitability and progress, all kicked off by this dramatic moment. Christoph is drawn to the water as a diver who makes repairs to a dam, and as we should’ve realised from the very first scene where Undine promises Johannes that he will die if he breaks up with her, she is also drawn to the water, as she’s not strictly human, she’s a mythological creature of the same name, and she was merely explaining the curse of what happens to any man who might leave her. Interesting both Christoph and Undine also share an attraction to architecture, as well as water.
The entire film plays out in a dampened, understated, yet romantic way, a lot of the screen time is dedicated to Undine’s prolonged historical monologues about the development of Berlin, but these speeches are crucial to understanding some of the rich themes Petzold is reaching for. There’s a real element of old and new, mythical and modern coming together and a clear through line of rejuvenation that ties Undine’s romance with Christoph and the setting of Berlin neatly together. One monologue alludes to a 16th century castle that was destroyed but is now being rebuilt.
This underlying theme of regeneration is used several times throughout the film in a series of narrative doublings, Berlin, Undine, Christoph, the dam that Christoph is repairing and the fish tank in the cage all get broken and then restored throughout the film, and all bare the markings of that restoration. One particularly neat piece of foreshadowing and narrative doubling is when Undine accidentally breaks the leg off of the deep sea diver model, with Christoph then injuring his leg later on in the film.
The unfolding relationship between Christoph and Undine is, on the surface, a perfectly normal whirlwind romance, but the way it unfolds on screen adds a certain sense of magical realism to it, as evidenced from the spark that causes it as well as the scenes that follow, it’s almost a dream come true. However, the unstoppable progress of fate begins to take its course when Undine and Johannes cross paths again, and the curse of her kind begins to rear its head, forcing Undine to take matters into her own hands.
This part of the film, as well as acting as a metaphor for the struggles of getting over a toxic relationship and how that affects a relationship with the ‘right’ person, also plays out like a Ringu-esque horror. Tragically, the film becomes a story of star-crossed lovers, on a path to have a similarly devastating ending as Romeo and Juliet. Christoph is injured in a horrific accident, and Undine realises that her brief dalliance with Johannes has doomed the love of her life, leading to a very sleek, well lit, and brilliantly staged swimming pool scene where Undine coldly confronts Johannes once and for all before eventually returning to the water to save Christoph.
The message is clear, just like the 16th century castle that’s being turned into a museum, Undine as an age-old mythological creature of the past, must give way to the unrelenting advances of modernity and pass the torch, as it were, to Christoph because there’s no place for her in the modern world.
Progress is impossible. As evidenced by the café being inside an old church, and Johannes reappearing in Undine’s life, the moving forward and restoration of old things is performative rather than substantive. Instead, she is fondly remembered through Christoph’s enduring love, a permanent romanticised reminder of the past. It’s a poignant lasting impression and one that’s entirely strengthened by the quiet and fierce chemistry of the two leads Beer and Rogowski, as well as their understated but pitch perfect performances.
This third act downturn in fortunes for our characters, sparked by the story of the castle being restored as a museum, proves that Undine isn’t in control of her actions and is bound to her extraneous fate of her mythology. However, the brilliance of this sequence is how Petzold memorialises the romantic whirlwind moments from earlier in the film, by narratively having the film play out in reverse, revisiting all of the places Undine and Christoph visited when they were together, except this time the pair are separated and the places are less hopeful, less vibrant and more like dusty melancholy museum exhibits. It really ties everything together excellently.
Undine is a gorgeous love story on the surface, rippling away with a dark undercurrent, but when you take a dive underneath you can see the deeper meaning and layered storytelling full of mythology, romance and nostalgia for the past that Petzold is aiming for, it doesn’t excitedly rush like rapids, but rather slowly envelops you like the tide coming in.
Please check out our reviews for the rest of the horror films that screened at London Film Festival this year here