Christian Petzold’s tale of oceanic romance dips its toe in the depths of substance, but stops short of taking the plunge.
Undine is an obsessive journey for attachment through the eyes of a restless spirit.
The main protagonist, Undine (Paula Beer) is uncompromising in her approach to love. After being on the receiving end of a break-up speech from her cheating boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), she tells him “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you”. Her steely-eyes and unwavering tone, suggest that this is far from an empty threat. This desire to act on this impulse is smothered soon after when a new love interest emerges.
Upon returning to her professional life as an architectural lecturer, Undine meets an underwater diver called Christoph (Franz Rogowski). Their connection is both instant and obsessive. His presence has seemingly put a warmth back into Undine’s heart that had been taken away by her previous lover. The sensual nature of their relationship is relentless, but Undine’s soul is at the mercy of a more powerful spiritual force, the water.
Petzold is operating at his aesthetic peak. He cleverly uses Undine’s profession as an architectural lecturer to capture the modernist elements of Berlin’s post-war landscape. Panoramic views of chrome interiors, seamlessly transition into shots of the shimmering of the ocean.
However, this is rooted in a strong sense of isolation in our protagonists. Given the nature of Petzold’s approach to filmmaking it is likely that this distancing is a deliberate stylistic choice, but it doesn’t serve to push the story forward. Much like the mythological-figure that Undine embodies, the film feints and teases with the idea of a big emotional payoff before pulling away into the abyss.
Whilst it lacks potency as a love story, it’s saved by outstanding performances. The film’s lead, Paula Beer (Undine), personifies the duality of the fantasy she finds herself trapped in; sexual expressiveness and emotional withdrawal.
The command of the role and chemistry between herself and Franz Rogowski should come as no surprise. The trifecta (including Director Christian Petzold) had previously worked together on the critically-acclaimed period drama “Transit” (2018) and complement each other superbly. The opportunities to demonstrate this are unfortunately too scarce.
For all its physicality and spirituality, there is a shortcoming in its failure to elicit an emotional response. It is easy on the eye, but may be more at suited to an art museum than in a cinema.
‘Undine’ is an object to be observed, pondered over but ultimately offers little that you can take home with you.
Rating: Two-Out-Of-Five Barz