Christian Petzold’s latest exploration of romantic and social identity wades into mythic waters
With his last three films Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit, Christian Petzold has engaged in a fascinating reckoning with the shifting identities of his native Germany–both on a personal and societal level. All three feature relationships torn asunder by geopolitical, fascistic conflict: Barbara features a Doctor seeking to flee East Germany to reunite with her lover in the West, only to have her relationships tested by her fellow coworkers. Phoenix reunites’ Barbara’s Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld in a Vertigo-shaded story of a woman who, rendered unrecognizable by Nazi camp experimentation, takes on her assumed-dead identity to reunite with and understand the motivations of her scheming and oblivious husband. Transit, inspired by a Wartime novel but transposed into modern day (with little else changed), features Franz Rogowski as a German refugee seeking to flee through France under the identity of an author who’s committed suicide–only to end up falling in love with the author’s unsuspecting widow.
Each film in Petzold’s loose trilogy bears sharp critiques of a past Germany has long sought to either atone for or move on from–with the sins of the past bearing consequences that his characters must pay for with their relationships. The true motivations of many of Petzold’s characters remain elusive even beyond their final frames–but what remains strikingly clear throughout is how the malleability of one’s personal or national identity reveals in itself a riveting conflict between a passionate need to connect with others and an equally instinctual drive for self-preservation.
Petzold’s latest film, Undine, bears a remarkable evolution in his examination of these recurring themes. Here, passionate romances and the history of a nation are connected with a mythic underpinning that is all at once tragic and transcendent.
Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian and guide in the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development, delivering insightful monologues about Berlin’s ever-evolving architectural styles and how they reflect shifting social politics through history. Recovering from a recent breakup with an unfaithful lover, she crosses paths with Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a professional underwater welder. It’s love at first sight, and both Undine and Christoph are quickly inseparable. They share in each other’s passions with matched intensity–from dreamlike dives underwater to Christoph’s rapt attention to Undine as she rigorously memorizes her next set of tour facts. But much like the blurred line between Past and Present reflected in Berlin’s architecture, Undine’s troubling past begins to reveal unintended conflicts in her present. As she navigates the detritus of her previous relationships before they can affect Christoph, Undine’s life shares similarities to the myth that bears her name–of a Water Nymph who is doomed to bring death to the lovers that wrong her.
“Modern architecture theory teaches us that the design of a building can be derived from the best possible realization of its intended use. Form follows function. In the center of Berlin now stands a museum built in the 21st Century…in the form of an 18th-Century ruler’s palace.
The deceptive part lies in the hypothesis that this makes no real difference, which is the same as claiming that progress is impossible.”
Phoenix literalizes the shifting identity of Germany in its heroine’s illusory transformation, and Transit transposes its World War II storyline to modern day to reveal just how timeless hatred and conflict truly are. With Undine, Petzold melds these two fascinations into the journey of his star-crossed lovers, reflecting on just how people (like places) are unable to let go of their pasts despite the facades of change they may adapt over time. Constantly throughout Undine is a tension between the thrill of a seemingly endless new relationship–Undine and Christoph are often intertwined in public as they are in private, as if compelled to join together as one like something out of Aristophanes. But just as pervasive is the regret of letting a past relationship go–whether it’s Undine with the lover who wronged her, or eventually Christoph as he struggles to understand Undine’s true nature. Both lovers repeatedly visit the places with the strongest memories of each other–as if a return will mean a re-experience of those moments and emotions, hopefully bringing with it a further clarity to a murky past.
It’s fitting that such a passionate romance at the core of Undine sees one of Petzold’s most effective star pairings reunite. Rogowski and Beer are just lovelorn and mysterious here as they were in Transit, sharing a remarkable tenderness that feels as if it’d be impossible for them to keep secrets from one another–making it all the more striking as Undine’s mythic past grows to overshadow whatever future they may have together. At the same time, it’s bewitching to watch the pair together as they truly get lost in each other’s company–for better and for worse. As Undine concludes the above monologue, it’s as if the crushing pessimism is totally lost on Christoph–it’s more about the musicality of Undine’s voice, a siren song meant only for him in that moment.
The film’s shifts in tone, as conflicts to rise to the surface, finds Petzold exploring something that only existed on the fringes of Phoenix and Transit. Phoenix culminates in an inevitable yet remarkable Hitchcockian twist of fate, and Transit dares to unstick its plot out of time to create a unsettling relevancy to today’s politics–only to continue pushing the limits of time and space to a spiritual finale. Both films inched towards the realm of the fantastic–and by drawing inspiration from Greek and German folklore for Undine, Petzold elevates this romance to an equally timeless and mythic stature.
Undine is now playing in limited theatrical release and on VOD courtesy of IFC Films.