Director Christian Petzold (Transit, Phoenix) begins his new feature Undine with a breakup. Framed tightly on the face of lead actress Paula Beer, we absorb the news as she does. But this is no ordinary separation, and as jilted lovers go, Undine is far from typical. Her name betrays what sets her apart — although in the vast realm of mythological entities, undines are not especially well-known creatures, at least in America.
Petzold relocates the mythological story of the undine, a water nymph prone to mood swings with a tendency towards challenging relationships, to Berlin, and Beer plays her as a stylish and elegant historian who lectures on the city’s architectural history at the Berlin City Models exhibition. But she is also conducting an unhappy adulterous affair with Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), which as the film opens is reaching its unhappy end — revealing a flash of something angry and even violent in Undine. As her connection to Johannes falls apart, Undine must ask herself: is she a prisoner to her own bloody, tragic destiny? Or is there something she can do to break free?
Eerily beautiful, enigmatic but elegant, Undine showcases Petzold skimming the surface of a rich, fantastical body of traditional lore, much like Ali Abbasi’s wonderfully weird Border, or perhaps Wim Wenders’ tale of lovelorn angels, Wings of Desire. The film operates both as a love note to Berlin and a delicate meditation on the vulnerability of being in love.