‘Undine’ overview: An odd, fascinating mermaid love story

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The good German writer-director Christian Petzold has quite a few recurring fixations: girls in bother, doomed romance, the specters of a grim previous hovering over an unsettled current. In movie after mysterious, melancholy movie, he’s shuffled and reshuffled these noirish parts, putting them in revealing new configurations even when he generally depends on the identical faces. In his good 2019 drama, “Transit,” Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer performed two almost-lovers caught in a form of temporal loop: It was a wartime melodrama that stored operating in circles, turning its characters into captives of historical past or style or each.

Beer and Rogowski are again in Petzold’s unusual, steadily entrancing new image, “Undine,” solely this time there’s nothing “nearly” about their love story and nothing unsure about their time-frame. We’re in present-day Berlin, although Undine Wibeau (Beer) dips often into the previous in her work as a historian and information, explaining how town’s current improvement displays and generally conceals the scars of its war-ravaged historical past. You wouldn’t essentially guess, from her good black go well with and her nimble recitations, that she is in actual fact the Undine, the water sprite of historical European lore whose love for a human has granted her human type. That’s the place this film’s sly conceptual gambit — and nearly each Petzold film has one — comes into play.

His filmmaking is commonly premised on fascinating contradictions of tone and topic. A devotee of basic Hollywood, Petzold delights within the conventions of previous thrillers and melodramas, their pulpy pleasures and overripe contrivances. For all that, his diamond-hard surfaces are exceedingly poised, even cool to the contact. “Undine” is a poker-faced fairy story, a fantasy wrought by a dedicated cinematic realist. It’s an instance of how a filmmaker can take an outlandish central concept and play it fantastically straight.

Paula Beer in the movie "Undine."

Paula Beer within the film “Undine.”

(IFC Movies)

We first meet Undine as she’s being dumped by her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) for one more girl — a betrayal that may appear banal if not for the just about otherworldly ache we see in her downcast gaze. “In case you depart me, I’ll need to kill you. that,” she says, extra solemn than indignant as she invokes their binding supernatural contract. However earlier than she will be able to make good on that promise, Johannes leaves and one other younger man, Christoph (Rogowski), is immediately sweeping Undine off her toes, in a scene that’s by turns humorous, eerie and ardently romantic. Technically, they each get swept off their toes, flooded with water and bits of damaged glass when an aquarium ruptures close by — a startling accident that seems like a blessing, even a baptism, of their union. It additionally carries a warning: A few of that damaged glass attracts blood.

Undine isn’t the one half of this couple with an affinity for water. Christoph, an industrial diver, spends hours beneath the floor of a close-by lake, welding underwater artifacts and casting an sometimes awestruck eye on the wildlife. (This slippery story of romantic entrapment will not be a catfishing narrative nevertheless it does function a first-rate catfish.)

Beneath the floor, amid gorgeously photographed shades of bubbly blue-green (shot by Petzold’s longtime cinematographer, Hans Fromm), the film’s romance deepens and so do its mysteries. Undine and Christoph dive headlong into want, embracing one another’s worlds with playful abandon and refusing to let one another go — an concept sweetly conveyed by the repeated picture of Christoph operating alongside Undine’s prepare because it pulls into or away from a station.

There’s some sly mythological foreshadowing to these arrivals and departures. However there’s additionally a deeper fascination with the very form and construction of Berlin, whose open plazas, clustered towers and criss-crossing railway strains are generally glimpsed from a distance, however largely represented by the big scale mannequin that Undine presents to the general public. Fantastically and imperfectly, these buildings bear witness to the extraordinary transformation of a metropolis that was destroyed, partitioned and reunified within the final century, and which was initially constructed centuries in the past over the swamps and marshes from which Undine presumably arose.

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer walk around Berlin in the movie "Undine."

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer within the film “Undine.”

(IFC Movies)

In a single enchanting-verging-on-ridiculous scene, Undine rehearses her subsequent lecture aloud throughout an intimate second with Christoph, making express the hyperlink between this fantastical love story and its historic and architectural foundations. Is Undine, a lover of males, additionally a form of guardian to humanity? Do her bonds with Christoph and Johannes — whose eventual return sends the plot spiraling towards tragedy — mirror the conflicted spirit of Berlin itself, struggling to reconcile the previous and the brand new? That’s a much less sleek interpretation than Petzold, a grasp of suggestive ambiguity in movies like “Barbara” and “Phoenix,” would sometimes enable. However in a film that finds him taking part in freely with mythological archetypes, maybe blunter, extra concrete metaphors are solely to be anticipated.

At one level Undine invokes the basic design precept that “type follows perform,” a rule that Petzold appears to each flout and uphold right here. “Undine” has its eccentricities — it’s certainly the one movie whose musical motifs are a Bach piano concerto and “Stayin’ Alive” — however its unfussy compositions and fluid enhancing have the identical elegant precision because the filmmaker’s earlier work. Its most lyrical results are exquisitely easy: Someway, the pink of Undine’s tousled hair and the aquamarine of her window curtains convey extra undercurrents of feeling than any elaborate CGI frippery would.

Beer, whose face can fill with pleasure one second and darken with dread and anxiousness the following, is matched in depth by Rogowski, who makes Christoph so vulnerably lovesick that you could be begin to worry for him. The actors’ connection feels so proper and so true that it really works its personal form of magic, to the purpose the place the story’s fantastical context may nearly blur into insignificance, although it by no means does. In “Transit,” these two actors had been mere ships passing within the night time; in “Undine,” it’s a thrill simply to observe them make the leap.

‘Undine’

In German with English subtitles

Not rated

Operating time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Enjoying: Opens June 4, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Claremont 5, Claremont; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle City Middle 5, Encino; additionally on digital and VOD

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