|Writer/director Christian Petzold|
UNDINE B+ Germany France (90 mi) 2020 d: Christian Petzold
A smart looking, elegant, but deeply cool and even austere modern rendering of a 19th century fairy tale about a water nymph given human form through love, but destined to kill her lover should he betray her, rather harsh mythological terms and not a woman to trifle with, but something along the lines of Jacques Tourneur’s CAT PEOPLE (1942) starring Simone Simon and Kent Smith, remade with excessive sexuality in 1982 by Paul Schrader with Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell. Avoiding obvious references to the sci-fi horror genre, this is a film where there are surprises galore, a story of love and death with a supernatural twist, and then rebirth, as the tale plays out in endless cycles (be sure to watch through the end credits), which has an intoxicating effect on viewers, paralleling a historical tale about the foundation of the city of Berlin, which has been destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions, yet continues to redefine itself through planning commissions and modern architecture, creating a unique identity that has gone through various transformations, but in fact never stops evolving. As usual with Petzold, his films have the precision of a surgical knife, digging deep under the surface, never knowing what you’ll find. Deeply allegorical, many viewers may not grasp the meaning behind the film, as it raises questions, but fails to provide meaningful answers. This is what Petzold does with films, offer provocation, targeting the underlying subconscious reality, stirring things up a bit, and then seeing what unfolds, refusing to provide easy answers. Petzold, perhaps the best known figure of the Berlin school of filmmakers, has been exploring issues of shifting German identity his entire career, enthralled by German filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls who fled to America to escape Hitler, where in 2018 Top Ten List #3 Transit, someone assumes the identity of a deceased writer to escape a rising tide of fascism, mirroring the current plight of European refugees, while in 2015 Top Ten List # 3 Phoenix, set following the collapse of the Third Reich, one literally receives a facial reconstruction to forge a new identity, both among the director’s best, representing extreme responses to authoritarian rule. Barbara (2012) examines the repressive legacy of East German Stalinism, while Yella (2007) uses a dreamlike Antonioni reverie to explore postwar German capitalism, while Jerichow (2008) plays upon convention, creating a rural neo-noir to explore an economically challenged region of Germany. All dwell on various aspects of German history, as does this film, offering a unique style of love letter to the city of Berlin. Petzold’s entire output displays a masterclass on the overall development of the German soul, having already undergone so many different transmutations, where this film suggests cities, buildings, and ideas constantly change and evolve over time, using surreal, phantasmagorical underwater imagery to delve into our mythical subconscious, including a repeating piano musical theme from Bach’s Adagio movement BMW 974, Concert in D Minor for Oboe, Strings, and Bass played by Icelandic superstar Víkingur Ólafsson, Víkingur Ólafsson – Bach: Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974 - 2 ... YouTube (4:17), itself a transfiguration and a supreme architectural masterpiece of profound emotion. Arguably the best edited film of the year from collaborator Bettina Böhler, sharp and precise, a Petzold product always feels guided by an assured hand at the helm, where this film draws us in from the outset with the ghostly hyperrealism adding a special underlying allure, never really knowing what to expect, yet there is plenty of suspense and sustained tension throughout.
Paula Beer returns as Undine, winner of a Silver Bear Award as Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, seen at the outset in obvious turmoil, an emotionally fraught moment, sitting at an outdoor café where the man sitting across from her, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), is leaving her for another woman. But this isn’t any ordinary breakup, as (brace yourselves) she coldly comments, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” This alters the rules of the game and hovers over everything that follows. Sounding preposterous, perhaps too hard to believe, Johannes exhibits a certain twitchiness of uncertainty and unease, as his cellphone rings with damning evidence, clearly itching to leave, but she warns him to stay put, that she has to return to work for a half-hour, expecting him to remain sitting there until she returns. Impossible not to notice that both are redheads, an unusual pairing when it comes to romantic leads, yet there it is — unmistakable. Just as assuredly she hurries to her next destination, where she works at the models exhibition in the Senate Department for Urban Development as a museum guide, changing her clothes at her locker, identifying herself as a city historian, offering extremely specific historical detail about the city of Berlin’s development, how the land was once viewed as a swamp, becoming a gathering place of commerce and trade, introducing churches and buildings of historical significance, some destroyed and rebuilt from the rubble, eventually built into an architectural marvel, where her focus targets on the reconstruction of East Berlin, including a rendering of that section before and after the collapse of Communism, showing how it eventually merged into a modern cityscape, including models of buildings yet to be constructed, with a small-scale replica of the entire city built on a large table, with viewers standing around in narrow aisles overlooking the design. The seriousness of her lecture is stunning, revealing a city constantly redefining itself, forging an identity that remains in flux, yet just as emphatically she returns to the scene of the crime, discovering Johannes has left the premises. Searching inside, she discovers a large aquarium sitting atop a high ledge overlooking the interior premises, making eye contact with what looks like an underwater figure wearing diving attire and a spear, with the fish swimming around it. Her name is loudly spoken, as if from another realm, apparently coming from the aquarium, while simultaneously she is interrupted by the presence of Christoph (Franz Rogowski), congratulating her on such a fine lecture that he just heard, offering her a coffee, yet she’s obviously in another place mentally, still somewhat dazed and confused, so he steps aside, moving backwards, and stumbles into a storage rack, with plates and silverware crashing to the floor, breaking the aquarium into smithereens, both left helplessly knocked to the floor sopping wet, with shards of glass stuck to Undine’s abdomen, seen bleeding, both facing each other on the floor, where they create a dizzying spectacle of destruction that leaves the proprietor none too pleased, calling them “Assholes,” griping about what he has to clean up afterwards, showing no concern whatsoever for their welfare, but banning them from ever returning. Easily one of the more peculiar entrances in all of cinema. No sooner does Undine lose one lover, she’s immediately found another, falling head over heels in love with an industrial diver who performs underwater repairs on bridges, where this guy simply adores everything about her, taking unusual interest in her job, paying rapt attention to her repeating every word of a lecture for him, where they are simply besmitten with each other.
The sensuous cinematography by Hans Fromm, working with Petzold since a made-for-TV school project entitled PILOTS (1995), is especially bright and crisp, making it a pleasure to watch, balanced and calm throughout, overtly beautiful at times, making exquisite use of passing trains, matching the elegance of the repeated Bach refrains. This film in particular has an intriguing style, especially when her lecture about Berlin’s Stadtschloss (Berlin Stadtschloss | Ruin Value, an age-old castle that was demolished under GDR Socialism in the early 1950’s to erase traces of its imperialist past, yet recently reconstructed into the Humboldt Forum) merges into sexual foreplay, where we learn, as they embrace, “Modern architectural 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.” The question is: what to make of all this, as enlightening as it may be? Just like the rebuilt Stadtschloss, which had undergone various historical connotations, Petzold has rewritten the myth, adding a new dimension of real love in place of the failed betraying model of the myth, inhabiting a wild romanticism that is rare in cinema today. We’re given a clue when they go underwater diving together, finding her name written on some unseen underwater infrastructure at the bottom of the river, where she quickly slips out of the diving gear and swims on her own, though appears drowned, miraculously saved, supposedly, by his heroics, where he resuscitates her and brings her back to life (though no water is coughed up) to the tune of Staying Alive by the Bee Gee’s, as it has the appropriate rhythm, which she finds unusually sensual, asking him to do it again. One of the more fascinating shots is just watching the two of them, arm in arm, walking across a bridge, where another couple passing by reveals Johannes in the arms of a blond woman. Despite being wrapped up in their own reverie, Undine distinctly notices him, setting into motion a dark and disturbing scenario that at the very least is unsettling. Just the sight of Johannes seems to rupture their amorous bliss, as if hitting a reset button, dovetailing the film in a completely different direction, where she meets an apologetic Johannes at the same outdoor café, this time promising to make amends, claiming he will be breaking up with his girlfriend, suggesting they start anew. To viewers this may seem like groveling, but we have no way of registering the impact on Undine, now with two interested suiters, receiving a mysterious call from Christoph in the night, quizzically asking her about concealing this other guy, later confessing she was indeed hiding something, only to discover he’s had a horrible accident. The real and the surreal blend together here, creating an improbable scenario, much of it founded on the myth, yet Petzold’s inscrutable style remains alluring, with Undine returning to the deep, which has a miraculous rehabilitating effect on the living. It’s all a bit confounding, but never less than enthralling, yet the overall mood feels like there’s a void from Undine’s absence, lacking the intensity she brings, where it’s just not the same, as if drifting into another picture, this time with Christophe years later romantically connecting with his diving partner, Monika (Maryam Zaree), yet it’s a movie where the river beckons, like a mysterious calling from the deep, interrupting normalcy in strange ways, yet the film is still full of surprises, remaining ambiguous to the bitter end, likely to confound viewers, especially those that leave during the final credit sequence. But for those that remain, there is a brief coda or epilogue that starts the entire sequence of events all over again, much as they do in Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), reviving yet another version of events, a lyrical poem transformed into something new, with the haunting musical refrain acting as the guiding light.