Undine (Paula Beer) is a freelance urban development expert who regularly lectures on Berlin’s architecture and its relationship to that city’s troubled past. She also has a secret: She’s the Undine of European myth, a mermaid–water spirit whose own trouble necessarily involves facilitating the death of any man who betrays her love. In “Undine,” the latest from acclaimed German director Christian Petzold (“Phoenix,” “Transit”), that gendered myth and Berlin’s historical collective trauma become inextricably linked in mutual heartbreak.
We meet Undine as she confronts one of those men, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). He’s breaking up with her and would like a clean exit. Tearfully, she informs him that he has to die in a very sorry-I-don’t-make-the-rules manner. He walks away, never having bought into her story. But before Undine can carry out her mythology-bound task, Christoph (Franz Rogowski) walks into the picture, flirting.
He’s an industrial diver, repairing corroded underwater turbines, his affinity for his profession such that he alone manages to attract a 6-foot-long urban legend of a catfish to his side while he welds broken mechanisms back to life. Undine lectures about the past and Berlin’s present crossroads; Christoph dutifully helps keep it all running, underwater where no one can see his work.
So it’s some sort of fate, then, when the first few moments of Undine and Christoph’s first meeting involve an accidentally shattered café aquarium, a mutual soaking, broken glass, blood and a furious waiter calling them “stupid a–holes.” This turns immediately to love, of course — an epic rebound.
During the course of one of Undine’s lectures, Berlin’s name is explained as a dry place built on a marsh. It’s a location destroyed by war, later divided by Germany’s fractured identity and, finally, restored with new tensions arising from its own collective mythologies and a desire to break with them. Not at all separate from this, the love affair of Undine and Christoph encompasses moments of CPR techniques, the song “Staying Alive,” underwater clues to Undine’s true nature, more breaking glass, and a statue of Poseidon included in one scene without comment. Their bond built on broken beginnings and their mutual need to rewrite what seems like inevitable fate forms a loop of action and anxiety.
Beer and Rogowski (the stars of Petzold’s “Transit”) are perfectly cast as romantic leads whose faces contain both sorrow and intense love. It’s all tempered by an awareness of the supernatural forces surrounding them and the empty center of the place they inhabit, but they physically swoon for each other as they carry the burden and fight to keep it at bay.
Petzold mines history here, too. The filmmaker’s 2008 drama “Jerichow” loosely referenced James M. Cain’s novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and vintage Hollywood noir is never far from his aesthetic practice. No mimic, Petzold carries Berlin’s darkness into the current moment, inventing new ways to tie his characters to the foundational struggle of the past. His color palette here is a dusk of gray, blue, and green, and the direct, realistic compositions from cinematographer Hans Fromm (a frequent Petzold collaborator) ground the fantastical elements in a sort of deadpan gaze.
Simultaneously, the filmmaker emerges as bearing the same romantic yearning as his characters, employing a Bach piano concerto as a love theme, indulging their urgent need to run alongside trains moving out of stations. He’s not here to toy with or crush his characters. He loves their pleading adoring faces, and he’s on their side, even if it might not all work out according to plan.
Hearts literally skip beats here. Lovers walk arm in arm in that way that rational people know is by no means comfortable, two bodies moving and propping each other up for no good reason other than to keep touching. In moments of distress, one of them wanders the city searching for the other. And when tragedy strikes, more quotidian tragedies of modern existence are alive within it. “Undine” allows for the magical while keeping its eyes firmly on the painfully real, making a valiant, full-hearted attempt to break the bonds of history.
“Undine” opens in select theaters and on demand June 4.