Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 10, 2020 11:26 am 
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Where men drown and Berlin history becomes sexy

Undine is an energetic, elegantly spare new film from the School of Berlin maestro Christian Petzold. As the title tips us off, he has taken the old water sprite legend on a new spin. It's in Berlin all right, smack in the center. His sprite, who, not to beat about the bush, is called Undine, is a free lance guide to a grand historical city museum, where she lectures visitors. And she's beautiful, a live wire, and played by Paula Beer, star of the director's 2018 international triumph, his biggest hit so far, Transit.

The new Petzold isn't on the level of the impressive trilogy that film concluded, which began with Barbara (NYFF 2012) and Phoenix (2014). Rather, it rides on the energy those three generated, to a relaxing soundtrack by Bach and the Bee Gees. Haunting is always in some way Petzold's thing, but this is his first run directly in the supernatural since Yella in 2007.

The action takes off fast, wasting less time than any movie you'll see this year. With frame one, bang! close up on a woman's face, beautiful, furious. And then a man's, nervous. Both, silent, stare at each other, telegraphing with the energy of frustrated passion that something is wrong beyond easy working out. This Is Undine (Beer) and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), and Johannes is breaking up with her, at an outside cafe, just before one of her city lectures, just a quick trot and a stairway away. Undine has a lecture to give. First, though, she tells Johannes that if he leaves her he must die. He cannot do that. He must wait there, at the cafe table, for half an hour and they will talk again.

Watch how Petzold shoots this: Undine's rush up the stairs, her hurried change from her tight jeans and soft leather jacket to skirt and suit and white silk blouse is electrifying. And the surprising thing is that he lingers over the talk she gives, in the vast space, pointing to spots in the vast city model, and this isn't the last time he will do so. Undine's Berlin city planning history lectures are to be examined with admiration and attention. They are the illustration of her magical power to function on land - a power that is guaranteed by a connection with a man. If that connection is broken, she must kill him. This is the rule native to the myth that Undine is enunciating to Johannes.

Petzold doesn't spell it out that clearly, of course. In fact while Undine is serious about its legend, and everything here revolves around water - when not revolving around that giant mockup of Berlin - it's also free with it. Some might wish somebody'd explained how much the story is going to be faithful to the myth and where it's going to depart. Movies don't work that way, though.

It may seem strange - it's one of Petzold's radical alterations - that Undine should meet another man immediately, an instant fix, and that he'd be an industrial diver, and so have more to do with water than she does. But while this movie arguably loses a certain amount of its energy (and needs more and more infusions of the Adagio from Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor) in the second half, the pleasure of its early segments is extreme and can nearly carry you through. This includes the meet cute with man no. 2 (who could derail the rules), Christoph, the diver (Franz Rogowski, paired with Beer also in Transit), which comes with breathtaking speed, in the same cafe where Johannes gave Undine the gate, and happens around the clatter of an exploding aquarium, fluttering fish, and Undine and Christoph collapsed on top of each other on the floor amid shattered glass. This is a meet-cute for the record books. Pretty soon they are diving together (passionately in love; and the chemistry here - also a carry-over? - is intense) and Christoph is showing Undine a sunken ship with her name on it. Lucky, isn't it, that he doesn't seem to know the myth?

But it's not all that clear what's happening otherwise - the blurb says the film remains "scrupulously enigmatic," and I can live with that. The trouble is though, that this film, compared to the last three, which were penetrated by the agony of living history, is caught up in its own protective bubble, like a diving bell, even with that big model of Berlin to remind us of its permutations. Sometimes it feels as if Christoph is more confined, more naïve, than Undine. She seems to have expanded her world, but only in an artificial way. See the later highlight where learning a new spiel interrupts the feverish excitement of their lovemaking, a quality all the more evident in a fundamentally cool dude like Petzold, when Christoph, who fell for Undine by listening to her lecture, begs her to say her new one here, just to him, and she does, to his rapturous enjoyment.

The other pull comes from Johannes who, in the dynamic sprit of the film, Undine spots as they pass him, with his other woman, walking on a bridge. People collapse under water, but suddenly burst back to life, and Undine's attraction to Johannes is not dead. Or is she just remembering that she must kill him? Stay and watch this delicious and intensely romantic if somewhat superficial film, and find out.

Undine, 90 mins., debuted at the Berlinale, also showing at St. Petersburg (New Holland Island), Hamptons, Mill Valley, New York (where it was screened for this review), London, Chicago, and Montclair. It has opened in France (AlloCiné press rating 3.9 - 78%; Les Inrocuptibles: "A grand film of amorous passion, 'Ondine' is inhabited by a wild romanticism [...] imbued with a fantastic lyricism too rare in German cinema ...") Metascore 70. IFC Films release.

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