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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
The opening scene of Christian Petzold’s Undine is more like the end of a story than the beginning. A couple sit together at a cafe table in a courtyard: a youthful woman (Paula Beer) with wavy red hair, and a somewhat older guy (Jacob Matschenz). Fairly quickly, we get our bearings: it’s a break-up scene, where the guy, Johannes, has to admit to his girlfriend Undine that he’s found someone else. Nothing could be more ordinary, until she responds with an ultimatum: “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.” But what exactly is going on? Is she a psychopath? Have we walked into the middle of a spy thriller? Or is there another possibility?
There’s a lot to be said for going into Undine knowing nothing at all. Especially not the premise, since it’s possible to get almost to the end of this fairly short film without having the least idea what’s really going on, although everything proceeds in the calm, lucid manner expected of Petzold, a leading light of current German cinema. Likewise typical of Petzold is the neatness of the design, built around recurring motifs: train journeys, for instance, or the Bach piano piece that punctuates the soundtrack, or the heroine’s brisk and assured yet slightly unsteady way of walking through present-day Berlin.
Undine by profession is a scholar of architecture, giving talks to visiting adult groups on the changing face of the city. Here she uses both maps and three-dimensional models with blank facades – and we’re led to feel that the film, in its enigmatic clarity, is itself akin to a demonstration model. The most crucial motif of all is water: this is present on different scales, from a trickling tap to full-on immersion. Undine’s new boyfriend, Christoph (Franz Rogowski), is an industrial diver; their first meeting culminates in the accidental destruction of a fish tank, a seemingly irrational bit of narrative patterning that confirms we’re dealing with some kind of uncanny force. Without giving too much away, at heart Undine is a love story. With Petzold’s films, the hope is always that pent up emotion will finally rush to the surface all at once.