An undine is a water nymph who lives for love. She can’t help it — according to myth, love is what allows her to dwell on land among the humans, and to obtain a soul. It’s also why she’s obligated to kill her lover, before returning to her native element, if he ever tries to leave her for someone else. An undine is a tragic figure, committed to love on a scale that is grand and alien, while forced to rely on the capriciousness of a fickle human heart. But placed against the context of our un-magical present day, she becomes the unreasonable woman who desperately refuses to let a relationship go. “You said you love me. Forever,” a stricken Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) tells her soon to be ex-boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), in the opening scene of Christian Petzold’s new film. “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you. You know that.” Johannes, who’s opted to stage this breakup at their favorite café, tells her irritatedly to “stop this crap,” showing no sign that he takes this statement literally. It’s not clear if we’re supposed to take her literally, either.
There isn’t anything obviously otherworldly about Undine in her introduction. She rushes late to work from the café, hurriedly changing into the modest heels and black skirt suit that serves as her professional uniform, and hiding her anguish behind an equally professional expression in order to deliver a lecture on Berlin after reunification at the Department for Urban Development and Housing. The only thing tying her life to the creature that’s her namesake is the heartbreak she’s experiencing. But when she rushes back to the café to find that Johannes has left, there’s a moment in which something the aquarium inside appears to be calling out to her. Maybe it’s the water summoning her back, or maybe it’s the ornamental figure inside — a diver, just like the puppyish Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who approaches to ask her out after explaining he was at the talk she just gave. In his nervousness, he bumps into the cabinet on which the tank is perched, and she pulls him down just as the glass breaks. When the contents splashes onto them like a wave breaking, it’s as though Undine has been given a chance to reemerge — from whatever lake she came from, or just from a bad romance — and start over.
Undine, which had its premiere at Berlin last year, has accrued a reputation for being a minor Petzold effort, a lull after the powerhouse run of Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit. That may say more about the very major nature of those films than about Undine itself, which isn’t good or bad so much as it is perplexing. It feels like a fist that won’t close, its elements never intentionally coming together. Maybe it’s meant to be taken as a retelling of folklore, an old myth rebuilt from modern material the way the Berlin Palace was, as Undine recounts in one of her lectures. But if it means to give a contemporary slant to the idea of the undine by allowing events to unfold from her perspective, it also has trouble offering insight into what its heroine is thinking. Beer, with her tumble of russet curls and her thousand-yard stare, is plausible as a woman who may be a creature out of a fable, but who also has to pull all-nighters because her boss has handed her a huge assignment right when she’d rather be focusing on the new man in her life. The film trembles right on the edge of allegory, but Undine never confirms her own liminal nature. While there are sequences that tilt toward the mystical, they always involve Undine being seen from the outside, from a point of view other than her own.
Without those elements, Undine would be the story of a woman who gets her heart broken by the philandering man she loves, jumps immediately into a new relationship with someone utterly smitten with her, and then turns her wrath on her ex when she believes that the universe is punishing her for not being able to move on with perfect cleanness. But the mysterious aspects of the movie are what make it so hard to shake off, for all of its frustrations. Undine is strange and sometimes off-putting, whether she’s a water sprite or a woman who’s internalized some hopelessly extreme ideas about human connection. She plunges herself in a sticky-sweet affair with the instantly devoted Christoph, one that offers her everything she might ask for, and yet, when she passes Johannes and his new girlfriend on the street, she can’t help but look back. It is the purity of her own heart that she questions, her own inability to live up to the epic idea of love as she sees it. But if it’s simpler down there in the water, the film’s underwater sequences are also murky and without beauty. The human world above, for all its messiness, is warm and alive.