Undine | ★★★★ In theaters now and available digitally Friday, June 4
In European folklore, an undine is a female water spirit—sometimes called a selkie or naiad—that has the unfortunate habit of taking human form and falling in love with mortals. According to legend, if the mortal lover proves unfaithful, undines are bound by a violent bummer of magical law.
“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.” That’s Undine, played by the wonderful German actress Paula Beer, speaking to her smarmy boyfriend, Johannes, in the opening breakup scene of director Christian Petzold’s moody romantic thriller. In a contemporary update to the myth, Undine is a young professional in present-day Berlin. Johannes has indeed strayed, and he’s clearly unaware of Undine’s true nature, or the consequences of his actions. But the look in Undine’s ancient eyes suggests she’s about to get mythological on his ass.
Fortunately for Johannes, Undine is reluctant to fulfill the curse this time around. When she meets-cute with another mortal—the good-hearted underwater diver Christoph—fate takes off in another direction entirely.
The myth of Undine is better-known in Europe and it’s good to go into this film with a sense of the cultural context. In Germany, director Petzold is known for sophisticated thrillers (Transit) and multilayered storytelling techniques. Indeed, Undine operates on that particularly European frequency of literary cinema. It’s not a supernatural thriller, as we in America have been conditioned to expect these kinds of movies to be. It’s deeper—quieter, too, and better.
Petzold’s update of the Undine myth brims with both contemporary and timeless ideas. Past and present coexist uneasily in the film, and Petzold is interested in how this dynamic relates to the modern German state.
In his version of the myth, Undine is a historian who specializes in the city of Berlin and how it’s grown around its waterways and wars. Leading a tour group through a room-sized scale model of the city, she looms over the metropolis like a deity. Later, when Christoph brings her along on one of his scuba dives, the couple chances upon the word “Undine” carved into ancient underwater pillars. Christoph thinks it’s a crazy coincidence. For Undine, it’s presumably a sad memory. She’s been haunting this place for a long time.
This theme of history repeating itself plays out in more personal terms, as well. In her modern incarnation, Undine is trying to break the tragic patterns of her curse. She wants to end her toxic relationship with the manipulative, mansplaining Johannes. But can she defy destiny and change her own patterns of destructive behavior? The answer to this question comes late in the film and has the tragic resonance of those original dark fairy tales.
If this sounds awfully dense for a spooky romantic thriller, well, it is—and that’s what makes it so interesting. The Undine myth has inspired artists through the ages, from 16th century alchemists to a long list of novelists, composers, and playwrights. (Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is a happier version of the legend.) Petzold is a veteran filmmaker, affiliated with the movement known as the Berlin School. He’s clearly having fun splashing around in the waters of magical realism. The storytelling is brisk and efficient; Undine clocks in at a tight 90 minutes.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite stick the landing, and the story lacks the elegant roundness of an abiding myth. But it did remind me of why I love the feature film format.
It’s nice to get a fulfilling story, artfully told, in a beautiful little package like this: no seasons to plow through, no binge watching required. Just the good clean fun of doomed love, ancient elementals, and deep Teutonic melancholy.
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