Christian Petzold was arguably Germany’s most impressive filmmaker in the last ten years, but he’s more than a little wet from Undine, a kind of artistic variation on Splash. Paula Beer, who made a name for herself in the director’s breathtakingly controlled drama Transit two years ago and won the Berlin Film Festival’s best actress award for this film in March, once again dominates the scene, this time as a lecturer and historian of the Berliner City Museum A very strange double life that evokes elusive vertigo vibrations and is also reminiscent of Neil Jordan’s mermaid story Ondine from 2009. IFC Films is editing the title in the US, where it was shortlisted to receive Germany’s entry to the International Feature Oscar Race.
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“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” Undine says to her dashing but dismayed lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) in a street café. If John has doubts about their sincerity, they could be corroborated by a little refresher in medieval nautical mythology that says that a water sprite’s partner must remain loyal or pay the final price. Of course not that John is buying this, nor does it explain her genealogical affiliation to such an esoteric, let alone mythological species. But it couldn’t be more serious.
However, aside from her threatening warning, Undine appears to be quite well-adjusted. Her urban development talks are on point and flawlessly carried out, and instead of murdering the conflicted Johannes as promised, she comforts herself with the obsessed Christoph (Franz Rogowski, with a nicely flushed face similar to that of Joaquin Phoenix). However, it is inconvenient for her to do her tete-a-tetes with both men in the same little cafe near her home.
Disturbing indications of inconvenience come in various forms: glass splinters from an aquarium break hurt Undine; dark images of shark-infested waters invade along with those of a catfish named Big Gunther; and there is an omnipresent fear of the fate of Undine and Christoph if something is not done against Johannes. In the short term, however, what is most annoying is that Undine is banned from her favorite little cafe for all the disturbances she seems to be causing, on purpose or on purpose.
A serious accident involving one of the main characters limits the focus of the film, but Undine’s status remains too uncertain and unclear to understand the situation or fully embrace the filmmaker’s imagination. Unlike his best work, the movie’s basic dramatic rules and dedication to adhering to them seem both blurry and arbitrary, and therefore don’t pay off in a meaningful way. Rather than finally shedding light on his strange little story, Petzold’s slow planting of dramatic seeds produces only a modest crop of drama and meaning that cannot be said to provide a nutritious meal.
More than Petzold, it is beer that consistently maintains his interest. She scores because of her seriousness, her beauty with red rust and a certain otherworldliness and is one of those happy and capable actresses who attracts attention even when she is calm and does nothing and says nothing. It is she who convinces one to be patient with the thrifty nature of the screenwriter and director of spreading information and meaning. In this film he withholds more than he provides, so it is largely due to the seriousness and ingenuity of his leading actress to keep the audience interested, which she apparently manages without breaking a sweat.