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Undine (Christian Petzold, 2020)

At the heart of Berlin stands the Humboldt Forum, a ghostly hybrid of the city’s past and present. On the inside is a museum, opened virtually to the public just last year, that houses collections of non-European art; on the outside, a partial reconstruction of the façade of the Baroque palace that occupied the site from the early 18th century to 1950. A series of destructions and reconstructions trails the structure’s modern iteration. The Berlin Palace, home to the Prussian rulers of Germany, was damaged by bombs during World War II and replaced with a modernist state building by the German Democratic Republic, which in turn was torn down after Germany’s reunification. For decades after, the empty, unresolved site became a battleground for custody over Berlin’s history. Former East Berliners argued that the GDR building should be reconstructed as a memorial to the city’s recent past; a competing group of West Berliners called for a return to Prussian glory. The latter group, headed by private businessmen, finally won the state over with sleight of hand: a trompe l’oeil replica of the historic façade, draped over the ruins like new skin over a skull. The past as plastic. 

That Humboldt Forum, and the questions of history-making (and -faking) inscribed on its surface, figure centrally in Undine, the new film by Christian Petzold. Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer), a historian and museum tour guide, practices a lecture on the Forum for her lover, Christoph (Franz Rogowski). They stand in the nocturnal cool of the balcony of her small, nondescript flat in former East Berlin, as she narrates the edifice’s journey from the “phantom pain of a violent amputation” to “a museum built in the 21st century in the form of an 18th-century ruler’s palace”—a subversion of the architectural principle of form following function. When she asks Christoph if he can show her where the palace once stood, the camera pans across a postindustrial façade of apartment blocks and pauses when he indistinctly says “There!” The building is never seen in the movie—only described or gestured at, a historic city center whose absence is made present by language and memory. 

Christoph’s orientation—his correct placing of his and Undine’s coordinates—struck me as an anomaly for a Petzold film. From the fugitive ex-terrorists of The State I Am In (2000), Petzold’s debut theatrical feature, to the Holocaust refugee of 2018’s Transit, Petzold’s characters tend to be adrift and unmoored, always in search of a new place, although their destination often proves to be a mirage. The illusion is hinted at in a line of dialogue in Petzold’s first-ever feature, the made-for-TV Pilots (1995), about a traveling saleswoman who dreams of moving to Paris. In the film’s opening, two hands trace routes on a map, and the protagonist’s lover says to her before they part: “At some time a place will belong to us.” At some time. Petzold’s characters think they’re seeking a different place, but what they’re really seeking is a different time—one that, eventually, seems lost to the march of history or the whims of fate. Trapped in the present, these drifters have no escape. 

Petzold entered the dffb (the German Film and Television Academy) in 1988, right at the cusp of Germany’s reunification—a definitive juncture that haunts his filmography like a specter. The director has described the neoliberal norms that soon swept voraciously through Germany and the rest of the world—marking what political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history”—as his lifelong subject. The static yet endless treading of late-capitalist life, the shallow yet seductive pleasures of individualism—these themes appear in his films not just as subtext but also as surfaces. Solitary characters drive along blue-grey autobahns; rendezvous in shiny, anonymous hotel rooms; and live and work in sleek industrial buildings. Everything is minimal, mobile, and abstract, even in period films like Phoenix (2014) and Barbara (2012), though this abstraction is neither an affectation nor a reluctance to commit to critique; rather, it’s Petzold’s way of concretizing our present. Nondescript is, after all, the proper description for a world that atomizes itself from history, community, and nature. 

And who better to represent this out-of-time-ness than Undine, a water nymph of ancient myth incarnated as a historian in present-day Berlin? Undine opens with scenes of startling spareness as Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), Undine’s boyfriend, breaks up with her at a café. The shots cut back and forth between the soon-to-be-ex-lovers’ faces, which are nestled in shallow focus, the background softly blurred. Their coordinates don’t matter; for the moment, they’re the only two people in this world, the drama of their encounter underlined by Undine’s quiet, matter-of-fact fait accompli to a skeptical Johannes: “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.” (That’s the legend of the undine—a mortal lover can make her human, but if he is unfaithful, he must die.) Then the frame widens as Undine walks into the nearby Märkisches Museum to deliver a lecture on Berlin’s post-reunification reconstruction. But a sense of abstraction lingers in the miniature model of the city that forms the centerpiece of Undine’s lecture: a featureless simulacrum in white, beige, and green (each color a tense, signifying whether a structure is built, in progress, or planned) waiting for Undine to breathe meaning into it. 

As she later does with Christoph, Undine asks if anyone in her audience can identify their current location. When a woman points to the corresponding spot on the model, Undine seems momentarily transported. The camera zooms into her eyes and then into the model, which fades into a shot of Johannes at the café, viewed from above. Is this an intrusion of an Other world, a revelation of Undine’s ethereal powers? Or is it just a flourish of retro film style, the dissolve signaling a memory or a dream? Cinematic form maintains an ambiguous relation with function in Undine: an edit across space and time can feel like telekinesis. Though the film’s explicit grounding in myth is a first for Petzold, signs from the universe are scattered abundantly across his oeuvre, promising hidden meanings in meticulous but vacuous worlds. Scholar Peter Brooks writes that melodrama re-sacralizes a modern society bereft of faith and fate. Likewise, Petzold eschews melodramatic excess but revels in the powers of the genre’s logic-defying twists—coincidences, resemblances, chance encounters—to restore enchantment to fragmented, alienated existences. 

And no sign is more potent in a Petzold film than love, preferably at first sight. After her lecture, Undine goes looking for Johannes inside the café; suddenly, a voice seems to emerge from within an aquarium, beckoning her by name. She freezes, as if caught between worlds, when Christoph, who attended her lecture, arrives to ask her on a date. A swift dance of gazes and movements ensues. Christoph backs by accident into the aquarium, which shatters and floors them both with a deluge of glass and water. Their eyes lock, and just like that, they’re in love. In films like Transit and Barbara, love offers the protagonists a tantalizing whiff of possibility: a sense of home so powerful that it dispels the desire for escape. One imagines that Undine sees the same fantasy in Christoph. He’s an industrial diver, an amphibian creature in his own way, who perhaps will make her of this world. Their courtship scrambles time and space: they meet and make love in a series of vignettes punctuated by train arrivals and farewells, causality and chronology dissolving in romantic delirium. Then these ellipses grow stranger. Undine receives a sinister phone call; Christoph suffers an underwater accident. He is mysteriously healed; Undine, just as mysteriously, disappears.

Did she ever even exist? Undine feels of a piece with Petzold’s Yella (2007), which (we learn at the film’s end) takes place in the dreams of a woman who dies in a car crash on her way to a job. Floating through a distinct post-reunification landscape of economic anxiety, Yella represents, in Petzold’s words, a character who has “fallen out of history”: been chewed up and spat out by lean-state capitalism, which demands a new kind of mercenary adaptability. In its own oblique, Romanticist way, Undine also thematizes the nature of neoliberal work, with its melding of desire and disposability. It’s no accident that Christoph is a contract diver, subjected to dangerous elements with little security, while Undine is a freelancer, as her boss dismissively tells Christoph when he goes looking for her. Undine seems to have vanished without a trace—or rather, with only one trace, a stain from a glass of red wine that Christoph had spilled during a tryst in her apartment, which is now being rented by tourists. The above-world only bears this stain; in the below-world of the river Wupper, where Christoph takes Undine on a scuba-diving date early in their dalliance, a reservoir bears her name. 

The storm of nature, history, and femininity conjured up by Undine invites many allegorical readings, but I suspect that Petzold’s interest lies in the material—in the traces that might just lull us out of what he, drawing on writer Georg K. Glaser, has called “historical silence.” In the press notes for Transit, he writes that this silence “is akin to windlessness or still air: the breeze ceases to propel the sailboat, which is enveloped by the vast nothingness of the sea. The passengers have been expunged—from history and from life. They’re cornered in space and in time.” It’s that feeling of paralysis that Undine evokes when she describes Humboldt Forum to Christoph. The idea that the past can be scrubbed clean and repurposed with a few coats of paint is, she suggests, akin to the notion that “progress is impossible.” The rub, of course, isn’t that progress is impossible, but that what we think of as progress today is really the accumulation of catastrophes—of extractions, exploitations, and environmental destructions. The Forum is a metonym for all of Berlin, which, as Undine explains in her opening lecture, is built on a drained marsh. Its waters now house subterranean turbines that power an infinitely churning metropolis. 

Petzold has referenced Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1961 short story “Undine geht,” which imagines the myth as the screed of a woman scorned, as an inspiration for his film. But the eerie spareness, the aching absence-in-presence, that so suffuses Undine brings it closer, in my mind, to playwright Jean Giraudoux’s 1938 stage adaptation. Giraudoux retells the legend as a grand tale of mankind versus nature. Petzold’s film is too modern, and too elliptical, for such broad oppositions, but an echo of the striking conclusion of Giraudoux’s play is palpable in every one of Undine’s crisp, spectral frames. When the undine’s curse is finally revealed in the play, Hans, her duplicitous lover, lashes out at her elemental kind: “I claim the right to be left in peace in a world that is free of intrusions by these creatures. Has there never been an age when they did not afflict us?” Another character responds, “Yes, there was once a moment. For that instant, the whole world was single-hearted, at play, at peace—and yet I tasted for the first time a certain loneliness.”

Undine is playing in theaters and virtual cinemas now, including at Film at Lincoln Center