A visually stunning, emotional merging of fantasy and melodrama.
Christian Petzold, following the towering critical success of his two most recent films Phoenix (2014) and Transit (2018), released Undine to an audience who may think that they know what to expect from him by now. His other films, up to this point, certainly have the markings of a modern auteur. He uses the same actors (both leads, Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, return from Transit), his previous two films both focused on World War II and the struggles of navigating the world in the shadow of Nazism, and frequent cinematographer Hans Fromm is also here once more. However, although Undine sees the continuation of some of these threads whilst maintaining Petzold’s focus on history and its interpretations, it also sees him wander in a new direction, toying with mythology and cityscapes.
Petzold building upon his previous interests makes Undine an instant draw in, but the apparent strangeness of it might send some of his niche fans running the other way. It’s a tricky film to embrace fully because it slips between so many cinematic perspectives – the fantasy elements and the realism are more closely intertwined than one may expect (in a way reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth), and this subsequent merging of the two will divide audience – especially Petzold’s, who by now have most likely come to expect the heightened realism he has stuck to in his work up to now. Rogowski and Beer as the central couple are both fantastic and provide two of the best performances of the year so far. Fromm’s cinematography is unsurprisingly gorgeous, making the world feel so lavish its almost ridiculous, gliding through picturesque locations in a memorable ways, especially the Cafe outside the museum where Beer’s character Undine works. That being said, the film works largely because of its script as it brilliantly covers so much ground – focusing on cityscapes, history, romance and, maybe most of all, probing the nuances of Undine just enough so that the audience can start to understand her, but never revealing all. It’s a subtle film, arguably slow-moving too, but it manages to generate ferocious emotion that most films can’t, and Petzold’s craft is as good as ever, if not improving.
Undine, directed by Christian Petzold, is now available to purchase and stream via Curzon Home Cinema. Watch the trailer below: