Is Christian Petzold's 'Undine' Myth or Therapeutic Dialogue?

Christian Petzold’s lengthy collaboration with actress Nina Hoss, from Wolfsburg (2003) to Phoenix (2014), saw the pair become inseparable. With the back-to-back films of Transit (2018) and Undine, their collaboration has hit pause, and a new one has begun with actress Paula Beer. While Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005) previously interrupted Petzold and Hoss’ collaboration, continuing with Yella (2007), Jerichow (2008), Barbara (2012), and finally Phoenix, this current pause feels a more notable one.

I miss Hoss’ presence and yet I adore Beer, who has expressed a delightful charm with two engaging characters. These two actresses will become inseparable from the critical discussion of Petzold’s work. The interesting nuance is how we think of Hoss’ singular presence, while Beer and her Transit and Undine co-star, Franz Rogowski, are inseparable.

Undine (Paula Beer), a historian of Berlin urbanism, is heartbroken when her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) leaves her for another woman. Without time for a pause, she encounters industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who heals her broken heart.

The titular character is more than just a woman, her story is a reimagining of the water nymph myth. The Britannica Encyclopaedia defines Undine or Ondine as, “…a water nymph who becomes human when she falls in love with a man but is doomed to die if he is unfaithful to her.”

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Legend trilogy (2005-2012), sought to ground the superhero mythology in reality, and whether conscious or not, there’s a similar intent here. By intertwining the fate of a seemingly ordinary woman with the myth, the film can be interpreted as either adaptation of myth or a tragic love story without the fantasy.

Initially, it’s unconvincing that Undine was a water nymph who metamorphosed into a woman – the only hint of her being a play on the myth is the film’s title. The drama opens with her and Johannes sat awkwardly outside a café, as she struggles to accept that he wants to break-up.

In the aftermath of her heartbreak, the glass of the aquarium tank shattering and spilling over the café floor conveys a dream aesthetic. If she has metamorphosed from water nymph to woman, then the shattered glass is a metaphor for not only her broken heart but her impending exile to the water. Unlike the dead fish on the café floor, a renewal of love when she meets Christoph spares her.

The set-piece is an important moment because it mentally and emotionally prepares us for her fantastical metamorphosis later, but the aquarium also represents the world within a world. It juxtaposes the story as fantasy or grounded in reality and how, intoxicated with love, a couple will create their own vulnerable and unpredictable world.

When she’s heartbroken again, she takes her life by walking into the river. It’s not a subtle inference on a return to her water nymph form, to await the next man she will fall in love with. In the alternative reading, the nymph is Christoph’s hallucination who grieves his dead lover. This lends the mythical a relatability, reiterating our relationship to life as tangible, and death as something we can only imagine and hypothesise.

In an interview with Teresa Vena for Cineuropa, Petzold said, “…I read a book by Peter von Matt about betrayed love in literature, where he also has a chapter on the aquatic creature Undine.” He went on to explain, “Undine made me think of the relationship between directors and main actresses as well as the one between muses and artists. Isn’t it a sort of perpetual betrayed love for all the Undines of this world? Don’t men always dominate everything? It’s not that Undine wins in the story; she has to go back in the water and wait for the next man to come along. She exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse. Our story aims to explore an Undine who is struggling against this.”

I reference this reading by the filmmaker because it suggests that the film’s meaning is open to interpretation. A psychological and emotional, gender-neutral reading has merit, but only we as viewers are able to take Petzold’s intent and open it up to ideas that transcend gender.

We must be self-aware of how much we give of ourselves to other people, in any form of relationship. Christoph replaces Johannes as the centre of Undine’s world, and when her experience of heartbreak is repeated, her vulnerability by giving herself entirely to another person mortally wounds her. It’s not an uncommon personality trait to look to others to validate oneself, to find approval. What’s necessary is to find these feelings of self-worth by looking inward.

How much time do we collectively waste in our obsessive search for the person we will grow old with? Undine is a symbolic carcass of wasted time. She speaks eloquently to groups at the museum, she rents an apartment, and she’s financially self-sufficient. She has built a life that, along with her romantic relationships, conforms to social expectations. Unfortunately, she has not grown her life and she has empowered these men at the expense of self-empowerment.

If we are attentive and introspective, Undine is an intelligent and thoughtful drama that can engage us in the therapeutic dialogue of protecting ourselves emotionally and mentally.

In comparison to Petzold’s previous films, Undine is a modest entry, driven by simplicity of the plot and not narrative. It’s a beautifully moving film whose emotion owes a debt to the second adagio movement of J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor. The music evokes a sad, melancholic tone that brings to the images the plot, and the performances a soul.

Rogowski is excellent as the sensitive Christoph, again similar to his character in Transit, he’s one of those actors whom you can see the cogs turning beneath his surface. The praise of Bach’s impact is to not diminish Beer’s impactful presence because the two are essential to one another. What’s compelling about Undine is what we feel versus what we see. We can feel the pulse of passion and emotion, and yet we see an exterior of calm because the film is always leaning towards sadness. This tenderness marries with the piano notes of the concerto’s gentle melody to forge a connection that becomes a defining characteristic.

The film’s crisis is the feeling of pointlessness, and there are those moments in which we question its purpose. This is not uncommon with storytelling. Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Intoxicated” (1949), about a guest meeting and talking with the daughter of the host of the party in the kitchen is seemingly pointless, and yet it’s thematically insightful. Like Jackson’s story, Undine is seductively simple, inviting us to discover its themes and ideas, and Petzold wisely ensures it runs no more than 90 minutes.

It’s a deeply romantic work that’s not designed to be overtly intelligent. Instead, it’s a story of impulsive love and emotion that taps into our fascination with metamorphosis. Undine’s transformation echoes the coming-of-age experience, the cycle of life and death, and it offers a fantastical or supernatural possibility of what lies beyond life. Whether we see this film as a fantasy or not, Petzold teases us with something that’s deeply human: the joy of creating memories versus the pain of remembering. That strikes an emotional nerve that has the film lingering in one’s mind.

Works cited:

Unknown Author. “Undine entry”. Britannica Encyclopedia.

Vena, Teresa. (2020) “Christian Petzold – Director of Undine”. Cineuropa. 29 February 2020.


Note: Undine has been acquired by Curzon Artificial Eye for UK distribution.