Christian Petzold’s 2018 film, Transit, was perhaps the platonic ideal of post-1945 European art: an international co-production conducted in French, German, and sign language; interrogating the legacy of World War II as it analogized the cruelties of the present world to the depravities of the past; concerned topically with the fate of the dispossessed, and abidingly with the questions of what Europe is and what it will be. It represented everything that European culture loves to celebrate about itself; it also had the virtue of being exquisite. No mention of that movie, Transit, can pass without mentioning the boldness of its central gambit, a font of unanimity that would be annoying were it not merited on sheer audacity. Transit sets a tale of flight from the encroaching Nazi occupation of France in contemporary Marseille, a decision that both functions as an artistic choice and a moral clarification. A reflection on the past, a clarion call of moral urgency to the present, and a genuinely thrilling tale, Transit more than made good on a lofty concept.
Petzold’s follow-up, Undine, is almost destined to seem modest by comparison. Another retelling of an old tale, Undine swaps the sirens of war and occupation for the folk memory of fairytale. Named for a sort of water nymph, an embodiment of the very element itself, undines were creatures born without souls, a condition they could only cure through human love and marriage. Undeterred by his more quotidian surroundings, Petzold strikes on another gambit, a clever inversion: the undines of legend faced death if the men they loved were unfaithful to them; Petzold’s Undine is compelled to kill.
Transit was the third film in a trilogy Petzold has deemed “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems.” There is a certain irony to this title, as the movies largely deal with, if not the impossibility of love in a state of horror, the perversions that can be forced upon it by powers far beyond the control of lovers. Over the course of this trilogy, Petzold progressed further back in the history of his nation, examining in turn the bondage inherent in East German life, the post-war reverberations of the literally disfiguring effects of the Second World War, and the obliteration of normal human life in the wake of the Nazi advance across Europe.
Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit were stories of love bent and broken by the horrifying weight of the mass totalitarianisms of the 20th century; Undine is a story of the more timeless complications of love, long predating the European cataclysm and sure to outlive our present day. If Petzold’s work had focused for half a decade on what outside events can do to the human heart, Undine turns the focus on that organ’s own self-sabotage.
Undine tells the story of two young Germans: Christoph, an industrial diver, and Undine, an architectural historian employed by the state government of Berlin. They meet just as Undine has been jilted by an unfaithful lover and immediately after she has threatened, with alarming calm, to kill him. Christoph, brought to the city to inspect the submerged foundations of its bridges, attends one of her lectures on the cityscape and is instantly smitten. Undine, too shattered by the betrayal of her lover, is almost unable to respond to Christoph’s tentative, gentle advances until the two are caught together in the cascading waters of a shattered fish tank.
For a short movie, Undine proves surprisingly languorous. The temptation when adapting folklore is to overcomplicate—to surrender the fable to the storytelling conventions that have proliferated in the centuries since its birth, to the dominant modes of cinema. The critical atmosphere of unreality these stories must cultivate can easily fall away when rendered in the gestalt of conventional filmmaking, when made to look, sound, and feel too similar to everything else, to appear as part of our common world instead of a world apart.
Several unorthodox choices root Undine firmly in the fantastic, despite its setting in contemporary Berlin. One of the key elements in maintaining the film’s ghost-like atmosphere is its use of sound. With the exception of a couple brief snippets of the Bee Gees, the only music heard in the film is the second movement of Bach’s keyboard arrangement of Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor, a lilting piece that flits in and out with the emotional transitions of the story. In between the plaintive piano notes, carefully selected sounds are amplified and drawn together, segueing between linked scenes to create a thematic continuity. (In a particularly amusing example, the splashes and gurgles of a scuba dive, labeled “underwater ambience” by the subtitles, are preceded uninterruptedly by the rhythmic sounds of a braking train and ragged breath, surrounding what the captions render as “cunnilingus noise.”)
Scenes under the surface of one of the many lakes surrounding Berlin likewise serve to locate this story far from the realm of everyday life, a state of isolation and partial sensory deprivation that sets Christoph, and later himself and his lover, off from the surrounding world. (Perhaps this is a personal affliction, but anything filmed below the surface of the water has always been redolent of horror for me, the uncanniness of an environment not naturally amenable to human life producing a pervading sense that something is about to go wrong. It’s an association not entirely inappropriate to the third act of this movie.)
Christoph and Undine’s love is fitting for this milieu. In the austere world of contemporary Berlin, they live out an almost childlike romance: Christoph runs alongside Undine’s trains to greet her and to see her off on her journeys; the lovers press their palms against two sides of a window, desperately seeking to prolong contact. When a totem of their love breaks, Undine is overcome with sorrow and anger, happy again only once she has repaired the damage. Most touchingly, after Christoph performs CPR on a mysteriously nonplussed Undine after a dive gone wrong, she calmly smiles at his baffled face and asks him to revive her again. Even the annoyances of sharing life with another person are turned into opportunities to express ardor, as when Christoph is woken by his lover’s recitation of a presentation she will have to give in the morning, and, instead of exhibiting annoyance, begs her to give the lecture to him in a private audience.
In the hands of less talented actors, unambiguous love might be cloying. So much of this film, like Transit, hinges on Franz Rogowski’s eyes. In Transit, they shift constantly, giving the perpetual impression of a man compelled by circumstance into a willingness to do anything. Even as Georg begins to sublimate himself, risking his own future in an almost impossible expression of love for his fellow man, his eyes show the horrible desperation forced on the refugee. In Undine, those same eyes take on an extraordinary softness, a fervid love that has settled on his lover as the repository of all hope and expectation. Rogowski’s eyes are perpetually full of wonder; no matter the actual geometry of faces, he always appears to be facing up towards her. When seemingly faced with a crushing betrayal, we don’t even see Christoph’s eyes as he confronts his lover; it’s impossible to imagine them retaining their supplication in that situation, but even harder to imagine them without their awestruck warmth. Christoph remains always at his most enraptured in the presence of the beloved.
Petzold’s excellent use of his male lead is unsurprising: while not quite the leader of a troupe, he has a career-long habit of identifying collaborators, muses almost, and returning to them again and again. (Most notably, he’s cast Nina Hoss six times across a decade and a half, pairing her with Ronald Zehrfeld as co-stars in both Barbara and Phoenix.) In this film, he reunites Rogowski and Paula Beer, allowing them to act out a courtship that was entirely unavailable to them in the strained confines of flight in Transit. The demands that the surprising final act of the film place on Beer require an extraordinary transition from her, requiring her to embody the almost inhuman reserve she abandoned after meeting Rogowski’s character. Undine appears as both an infinitely bright source of love and an emotionless avatar of inescapable fate; it’s a credit to Beer that both modes are convincing.
The incongruity of interrogating the infinitely weighty legacy of Germany’s 20th century for three films, only to stage a fairytale, is perhaps less severe than it appears. Petzold is again dragging an old story into the present day to examine it more closely, side by side with the contemporary manifestations of its lessons—the better to remind the audience of the weight of history, or, in this case, human nature as demonstrated in the supernatural. Where the thesis of his previous loose trilogy could, under duress, be grossly reduced to ‘The personal is political,’ Undine uses the story of the water nymph to bring to light enduring truths of personal life that can last beyond any political arrangement. Throughout, his oeuvre illustrates an obsession with the possibilities of love under strain.
The battlegrounds of the recent past and present as a venue for an ancient form of love. While no longer modernizing a story of the war, Petzold clearly remains fascinated by both the indelible and visible marks that Germany’s recent past has imprinted on its people. Through scenes of Undine performing her duties at the Berlin Senate, we receive a lecture on the urban history of the city, its scarring and remaking through war, division, conflicting ideologies, and reunification. Berlin becomes an ultimate venue for human life—a gauntlet for love across the perils of Nazism and repressive communism, sure, but no less the infinite human options of the modern metropolis. The city is the physical embodiment of our collective past. The last decade of Petzold’s work would seem to indicate that the weight of this shared heritage is inextricable from each individual life.
Petzold shows a clear preference for a certain ambiguity even amidst his heavy allegories. Transit’s villains are never explicitly deemed Nazis, and appear not with swastikas but in the guise of a heavily armored contemporary gendarmerie, labelled only as the police. Likewise, the new film never tells us explicitly that Undine is anything other than another victim of contemporary urban anomie and heartbreak. Whether Undine is actually an undine is left uncertain: normally she seems a woman like any other; occasionally she seems a ghost, but the most plausible interpretation of the movie is that she is both the plaything of fate and its agent.
But the ambiguities are both inevitable and ultimately irrelevant next to the unambiguous reality of each character’s ability to suffer and inflict pain. Undine is only in part a modern retelling of a concocted fairytale (consider: Big Gunther, an enormous and vividly horrifying catfish, the first near-mythical presence to appear in Christoph’s life), but it’s just as much an exploration of the damage inevitably wrought by love, and the horrifying ways in which lovers will continue to re-enact that damage on others throughout their lives, in a romantic equivalent to generational trauma. The extremes to which Petzold’s characters must go to break the cycle of suffering do not necessarily augur well for the rest of us. Perhaps Petzold merely intends to show us how our lives are shaped by inscrutable forces in our disenchanted world, absent the clarifying myths of the past.
Petzold’s decision to turn the form of the undine from a potential victim to potential agent of violence, while hardly as audacious as the anachronism of Transit—and unnoticeable unless the viewer is familiar with the legends on which his main character is based—is no less important to the final product. All else aside, it allows the filmmaker to sidestep some of the misogyny inherent in producing a vast majority of pre-modern stories. It allows his two stars to fill the roles most suited to the talents they bring to this movie: Rogowski, the ability to project a ferociously warm, desperate, trusting love; Beer, to embody both the feelings of a human soul and the unflinching necessities of a pre-modern idea of fate.
Most of all, the inversion sharpens the emotional impact of the tale for 21st-century viewers, at least slightly more likely to endow people of all genders with agency and moral worth. It refashions infidelity not as a fatal wound to a different partner, but the sort of interpersonal crime likely to recur or reincarnate ceaselessly unless the trauma of betrayal is dealt with. Undine serves as a reminder that our relationships are living things, with an existence independent of the sovereign individuals who enter into them. The past always offers lessons for us, whether in the form of the reality we can see in the distant mirror or the stories we crafted long ago to understand the harsh facts of reality. The quicker we can internalize our inability to escape history, Petzold’s films suggest, the better able we’ll be to avoid inflicting misery on each other, and create the possibility of real, enduring, unfettered love. There are worse dreams to cling to.