Myth cute in Christian Petzold's "Undine" as two slippery people dive headfirst into love
Starring Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zaree, Anne Ratte-Polle and Jacob Matschenz. Written and directed by Christian Petzold. Now streaming at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. 91 minutes.
The slippery romance "Undine" plays Cupid with an exploding giant fish tank.
It knocks Paula Beer's lovelorn title character onto a café floor along with Franz Rogowski's Christoph, who will become her new lover, leaving them drenched and covered with flapping fins.
This would normally be the purview of a "meet cute" scene in a rom-com, but the genre is alien to writer/director Christian Petzold ("Barbara," "Phoenix"), a German filmmaker of formidable intellect and realist instincts.
We might, however, call the fish tank mishap a case of "myth cute." Undine takes her name from a European fairy tale, liberally adapted by Petzold, about an underwater nymph who risks peril if she falls in love with an unfaithful male landlubber.
Beer's red-tressed Undine has just been dumped by one such man — the caddish Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who interrupts her work as a Berlin city historian to announce the split — but new guy Christoph, a diver and welder, seems a better bet for a woman drawn to the water.
Jumping into a deep romance with Undine is as appealing to him as it is to her, despite her hints of homicidal rage towards those who dally with her affections.
Have no fear: Petzold isn't about to make this a linear love story or a mere bedtime tale. Woven into the film, through architect's models and stories told by Undine (her historian's job includes guiding tourists), are detailed descriptions of how Berlin brought together its capitalist and communist sides after West and East Germany reunited as a single country three decades ago.
Berlin has more personality here than either Undine or Christoph; the film is slight by Petzold's standards. But Beer and Rogowski, who previously teamed for Petzold's refugee drama "Transit," pump life and intrigue into their diluted characters.
And what should we make of the mysterious giant catfish that keeps swimming past? It's the most engaging cinematic fish since the trout narrator of Denis Villeneuve's similarly perilous "Maelström." 🌗