The last time I saw a movie in public with a live audience was The Invisible Man back in March of this year, at the start of the COVID-era lockdowns. I recently ended that drought eight months later at the New Orleans Film Festival, which included a few outdoor screenings among the virtual at-home viewing options that comprised most of this year’s fest. The projection was a little hazy, mostly due to the lights of passing cars and my own glasses fogging up from my mask. The mosquitoes were out, and they were thirsty. The movie was solidly Good, but not entirely My Thing. And yet I treasured every minute of the experience, if not only for the novelty of being part of a moviegoing audience again instead of watching everything alone on my couch. It felt like cinematic therapy, a necessary break in routine.
The movie that dragged me out of the safety of my home for a low-risk outdoor screening was Undine, Christian Petzold’s follow-up to the consecutive critical hits Phoenix & Transit. If Petzold has a particular calling card as a director (at least based on those two prior examples), it’s perhaps in the way he treats outlandish, high-concept premises with a delicate, sober hand. I probably should have known to temper my expectations for Undine, then, which on paper sounds like it’d be catered to my tastes but in practice is maybe a little too subtle & well-behaved to fully warm my heart. Its IMDb plot synopsis hints at an aquatic horror fairy tale: “Undine works as a historian lecturing on Berlin’s urban development. But when the man she loves leaves her, an ancient myth catches up with her. Undine has to kill the man who betrays her and return to the water.” Filtering that modernized Little Mermaid thriller premise through Petzold’s normalizing, prestige-cinema eyes, though, the movie somehow lands under the Breakup Drama umbrella instead.
I can’t imagine being the kind of person who watches the glammed-out disco horror musical The Lure and thinks “What if this was remade as a quiet, understated drama?,” but apparently that kind of person is out there. Meeting Petzold halfway on those terms, Undine is a smart small-scale romance, the exact kind of Adults Talking About Adult Issues filmmaking that has been abandoned by Hollywood movie studios and now only exists on the indie festival circuit. While it treats its fairy tale premise with a quiet, restrained sense of realism, the drama it seeks in the relationship dynamics at its core is both wryly funny and passionately heartfelt. It’s difficult to make sense of what all of its lengthy train rides & lectures on the urban planning of a reunited Berlin have to do with the aquatic-horror myth of its premise, but the breaking-up and falling-in-love cycles of its two opposing romance storylines are engaging enough to prop up those intellectual indulgences. The chemistry between actors Paula Beer (Undine) & Franz Rogowski (Undine’s next potential lover/victim) is especially potent & worthy of attention.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I probably would’ve been more enamored with this film if it were a little messier or a lot more over the top; that’s just not Petzold’s deal. Still, it’s easy to picture a dumber, less nuanced American remake of this exact screenplay (starring Nicole Kidman & Joaquin Phoenix as the central couple), and there’s no way it would be half as thematically rich or dramatically accomplished. Besides, American studio movies don’t offer many COVID-safe venues for public screenings right now, so I couldn’t have enjoyed the outdoor film fest experience that Undine had afforded me if it were a mainstream genre pic. I’m very thankful for that therapeutic break in pandemic-constricted routine, even if I overall found the film itself to be Good Not Great.