Lady in the Lake

Phoebe Chen on Christian Petzold’s Undine (2020)

Christian Petzold, Undine, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 92 minutes. Undine (Paula Beer).

FORGED FROM APOCRYPHA by men who collect tales, the siren—mermaid, Undine, what have you—is marked by a thousand visions and revisions. What endures in the popular imagination: She is piscine from the waist down; calls a body of water home; and boasts, in lieu of a soul, a voice so devastating that Hans Christian Andersen collects her tongue along with her tail. But in Christian Petzold’s new film, Undine, our titular water nymph seems more weary scholar than mythic feminine, working as a docent at Berlin’s Märkisches Museum, where she relays municipal history to curious visitors. Where is her ruinous allure? There’s no melodious lilt to her voice, no scheherazadian thrills in the dates and facts that sketch the past century of this metropolis. What seduces, instead, is the promise of narrative order in a city wracked by cataclysms, its senseless loss tricked into soothing, elegiac coherence by a flame-haired guide with aqueous eyes. The loudest siren song, after all, is the making and telling of the myths we call history.

Against these structured recitations, Undine’s ill-starred lovers—since Jerichow (2008) as central to Petzold’s cinema as his grammar of hauntology—are cast in a strange and elliptical storyline. The film begins by flinging us into a dense thicket of close-ups without context: two silent faces locked in jolting, ambiguous intensity. The woman is Undine (Paula Beer) and the man (Jacob Matschenz) an asshole who is about to seal his fate: Undine is doomed to kill any mortal who leaves her. This man returns as a footnote, but the real partner in the film’s hypnotic pas de deux is Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver visiting Berlin to fix a bridge, who is so taken with Undine’s first talk that he follows her, freshly jilted and on a lunch break, hoping for a date. So much of the film traces their separate workdays—Christoph fixing turbines in a lake at Wuppertal, Undine spieling at the museum—but when each dip into the other’s world, the result is transfixion. Of labor’s everyday revelations, a fascination he shares with his late collaborator Harun Farocki, Petzold has said: “I prefer to create a seduction scene not with naked thighs; I want to see skills.”

Christian Petzold, Undine, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 92 minutes. Undine (Paula Beer).

I’m thrown, at first, by what feels like a problem of pacing. In one scene, siren and diver have just met, doused in water and broken glass when an accident shatters an aquarium. By their next scene together, we’re watching Undine alight an intercity train, leaping into Christoph’s arms with the pent-up gravitas of lovers cleaved by war. Forever parting and reconvening, the timeline of their romance is vague but anchored to the urgency of reunion. We never really know how much time has elapsed between their meetings, nor what they actually know about each other. Their conversations are always a present-tense compendium of circumstantial nothings, wispy banter marking an ease that can’t be earned overnight. So when was it earned? These scattered lacunae are jarring, as though pivotal turns in their courtship have been withheld and swapped for scenes of arduous intensity. Even so, their love is carried by the ineffable charge between Beer and Rogowski, reunited here after costarring in Transit (2018).

But I wager that the man who made Phoenix (2014), the best Vertigo since Vertigo, knows how to pace a film. While Petzold has long excelled at reworking Hollywood genres, Undine marks the beginning of a new elemental trilogy based on nineteenth-century German myths. Certain sensibilities seem to linger from his last trio of tragic melodramas: the opening break-up scene that spells amorous trouble, then the various close-ups on eyes that cast vectors of longing, and the desperate stares portending all sorts of fervor. The shift, though, is in the way Undine centers a kind of diegetic rupture, not with the usual bag of metatextual tricks that break the fourth wall or nest smugly cryptic story lines, but in how Petzold gathers the different forms we use to make sense of the world. The myth of Undine is one form of sense-making, its supernatural rift a fitting hyperbole for the problems of transgressive desire and the sacrifice it demands. Urban history is another form, as is architectural modeling, municipal plans, cartography, love. One evening in Undine’s apartment, Christoph wakes in a postcoital muss, roused by her frantic whispers as she rehearses the next day’s talk by lamplight. It’s the story of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, an old palace demolished midway through the last century and reincarnated in this one: “The empty space was partially filled by the Palace of the Republic in the 1970s, but a gaping, almost surreal wasteland remained.” In the middle of a city, there is a history museum built like an eighteenth-century palace. In the middle of a life, there is a new love silhouetted by an old one.

Christian Petzold, Undine, 2020, 2K video, color, sound, 92 minutes. Christoph (Franz Rogowski).

If Transit visualized temporal collapse through charged anachronism, Undine centers spatial dissonance. At the museum, the main visitor room is filled with archival maps and 3-D renderings, the city at once miniaturized and enlarged, collected as the remnants of its making and remaking by aristocrats, Fascists, and Soviet architects. In some shots, these varying fields of vision occupy the same frame, tiny buildings and aerial views joined in a trippy vortex of simulacral Berlins. Now and then we zoom into these Lilliputian streets and their scale suddenly feels human, as if our two lovers might be just around a bend. But the strangest place of all is the water, first seen as a winding streak of cerulean that maps the River Spree. Far from the tumultuous sea in Barbara (2012), Christoph and Undine’s aquatic sojourns take place beneath a bucolic lake, its dappled surface a threshold between worlds. This thick, murky realm is a new one for Petzold, a defamiliarizing place where all movement is forced into languor and sound is more felt than heard. It’s here that we also find the few reminders of the film’s structuring fantasy. On land, Undine easily passes as mortal, but in the water, she acquires a preternatural glow, nacreous in the lake’s muddled gloom. These vibrating depths hold banalities and arcana alike—Christoph fixes stuff underwater; Undine is the stuff of legend.

When a sudden tragedy at the lake halts their romance, our protagonists’ lives are unbraided and set so far apart that their time together begins to feel unreal. Each becomes wrapped up in their own fictions, searching for signs that love took place at all: a wine stain on a bedroom wall; a once-broken figurine; a last phone call that may or may not have happened. They already come from worlds that should not—and cannot—coexist, but do anyway, helixed together by that old trap: The heart wants most what it cannot have. Pooling evidence seems futile when so much is fluid, including the story of what they shared. I’m reminded, by these worlds within worlds, of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and its fantastic accretions. One city is especially elusive, the object of entirely different recollections to the narrator and his companions. But in the end, he relents: “Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.”

Undine opens in US theaters on June 4.