Acclaimed German filmmaker Christian Petzold reteams with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski for his latest film, which remythologizes the story of Undine (Beer)—a water nymph who becomes human once she falls in love with a man (Jacob Matschenz) but is then doomed to die when he reveals his unfaithfulness to her and decides to end a term to their relationship. This is where the film begins. Undine warns Johannes (Matschenz) that if he leaves her, she will kill him for her to survive and break her curse. However, Johannes leaves, and Undine becomes cursed…that is until she meets Christoph (Rogowski), in which they both fall in love with one another and begin a relationship. Undine starts out as a simple “romance blossoming” drama until it becomes something much darker once it starts to explore the mythic story it’s based on. Unfortunately, its exploration feels only surface-level, as Petzold prefers to keep it way too simple without exploring the anguish of its main protagonists.
Undine is cursed—this is something we implicitly know from the film’s beginning, through Paula Beer’s facial expressions and the film’s visual hints that tells us we are watching the story of Undine through a contemporary setting. All of that is great, but it isn’t enough for us to delve deep inside the main protagonist’s tormented psyche. Once she learns that Johannes is leaving her, she goes back to work, and massive uncertainty starts to kick in. The audience should want to know how she feels towards Johannes’ unfaithfulness; how can she now live in a world in which she’ll be soon doomed to die, or she’ll have to commit the unthinkable to survive and expunge Johannes’ sins? We don’t know much, except what we see outside: it’s made her vulnerable. All of that is fine if those were the characters’ preliminary thoughts, but the film never wants to explore Undine’s inside thoughts. This makes the audience’s relationship between Undine and Christoph feel incredibly cold and distant because we don’t have access to their pure feelings towards one another.
Case in point: Christoph gets in a life-threatening accident, which endangers Undine. She then must kill Johannes because the curse is upon her again. During those moments of unadulterated agony, in which Undine must commit the unthinkable to survive, we only have access to her external thoughts. External thoughts are only half of what the audience should understand of a character: they also need their internal thoughts to dress a full portrait of the same character’s feelings; otherwise, the film is exclusively hollow and doesn’t really do much. Petzold thinks he’s doing something truly great by making its main characters only share their external thoughts implicitly, but he forgets the most important part that makes the greatest-ever protagonists in film history great: what they feel inside. And he doesn’t need to showcase them explicitly. This can also be done implicitly as well. Undine’s mythological story is already told implicitly; audiences with expert knowledge and/or preliminary research on the subject matter beforehand might grasp the film’s implicit messaging better than audiences who have no idea who Undine is or what the film is based on. For audiences who aren’t familiar with its mythic themes, implicit messaging is the only way to get everything across. If I was able to grasp the story’s main plot points without knowing much about Undine, surely Petzold could’ve been able to propagate many of Undine and Christoph’s inner thoughts the same way he presents his themes, with indelible discretion.
Some could say that Undine is a film about feelings and that we should feel Undine and Christoph’s raw love towards one another. Still, there isn’t a moment in which their relationship clicks or when the audience goes “Ah!” when there’s a legitimate human connection between them. Undine isn’t human, and so her interactions with Christoph are quite unnatural. This is exacerbated during the scene in which she listens to every version and cover of The Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive after Christoph performed CPR on the beat of that song to resuscitate her. The interaction she gets with Christoph isn’t necessarily human—but feels terribly distant and cold (as I’ve mentioned before), which is, once again, fine, since she cannot exude proper human feelings. However, Undine does have feelings, as shown by the film’s opening scene: she’s enraged by Johannes’ unfaithfulness, so surely, she must feel something inside.
That’s Undine’s most frustrating part: it only shows us half of what we can fully see. Yes, Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski are excellent. I especially liked Rogowski once he wakes up from his coma, awakened by Undine’s aura, with only her in mind. He lets out a horrible, agonizing scream, looking for Undine—who seems to have vanished from the face of the earth. Unfortunately, Christoph’s willingness to find Undine is more interesting than the entire relationship since the film moves at too rapid of a pace. Running at only 89 minutes, Undine only presents a shell of an interesting film. It’s beautifully shot, yes, and contains rather compelling performances from two highly talented actors who are unfortunately contrived in a terribly superficial synonym that doesn’t dare to fully bathe in Undine’s mythological story and would rather present a terribly pedantic “relationship blossom” movie, until it drastically shifts tone and becomes a convoluted and shallow mess that never explores the characters’ inner conflicting feelings; the one ingredient that makes any drama truly incredible. A real shame if you ask me.