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film review

German director Christian Petzold boldly reimagines the ancient myth of Undine in this suspenseful tale of romance and betrayal in modern day Berlin.Christian Schulz,/Schramm Film / Films We Like

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  • Undine
  • Written and directed by Christian Petzold
  • Starring Paula Beer, Jacob Matschenz and Franz Rogowski
  • Classification N/A; 91 minutes

Critics Pick

In the opening moments of Christian Petzold’s masterfully murky ninth feature, we learn several things about the titular Undine (Paula Beer). She lives in Berlin, she’s a historian who lectures on the city’s architectural landmarks and urban development, and she’s just been dumped. Undine’s now ex-partner Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) delivers a breakup spiel with an unsympathetically frank attitude. In turn, she, with a matching matter-of-factness, informs him that she will have to kill him.

The reasoning here requires a point of reference not well known in North America. Undines, also spelled ondines, are water nymphs from European mythology. Legend goes that should an undine be betrayed by a lover, she has to exact revenge. Initially, it’s unclear whether the character has simply taken her namesake to heart or if there is a truly fantastical element lurking beneath the surface.

Undine then returns to work, and in stark contrast to the fairy tale unfolding, we’re treated to a lecture on the city’s reconstruction after the fall of the Berlin Wall – let no one say this movie doesn’t have something for everyone.

But it doesn’t take long for the fairy tale to return. In a meet-cute involving an exploding fish tank, Undine begins a courtship with Christoph (Franz Rogowski). Beer and Rogowski also collaborated with Petzold for 2018′s Transit, an astounding Second World War-era romantic drama. Once again, the two have magnetic chemistry, but there’s a palpable and aching sense that this is not happily ever after. However, it’s unclear whether Undine’s inability to fully relinquish the memories of Johannes are a natural result of ending a significant relationship, or if there really is a mythological curse that demands to be fulfilled.

Petzold has made a name for himself as a filmmaker who intertwines fate with coincidence. He often depicts stories that require not so much a suspension of disbelief, but an understanding that people will convince themselves of the impossible if it’s preferable to reality. Willing ghosts back to life and nymphs up from the deep is sometimes easier than accepting grief.

Undine (Paula Beer) works as a historian lecturing on Berlin's urban development.Christian Schulz,/Schramm Film / Films We Like

A few motifs – including a small statue of a diver with a broken leg – reappear enough that they might seem heavy handed to some, but the film is far from sloppy or sentimental. If anything, the recurring elements highlight a curiosity and an impulse to parse through connections in search of meaning. I’ve seen countless movies with crying characters, but only in this one did such an image prompt the contemplation that tears are also salt water. There are many of these parallels to draw and enough room for interpretation that Undine is sure to be a highly unique experience for each viewer.

Regardless of whether Undine is working at a level of allegory or actual fantasy, it is an expansively rich film. There are vested interests in histories of loss and reconstruction, the formation of Berlin’s urban identity, and the value of stories and myths to reconcile what facts cannot. The magic trick the film pulls is concealing all of this under the serene surface of a simple relationship drama.

Returning to the guided tour that she delivers shortly after the breakup with Johannes, Undine surveys large tables of miniature city models and notes the significant buildings. Elaborating on the intricacies of one such table, she states that it conveys a “loving attention to detail.” The descriptor here seems too deliberate to be brushed off. Undine intentionally characterizes the construction as something that came from a place of love, not just duty. It seems that even in a history lesson, there’s room for romanticism to seep through.

Undine is available for rent on digital TIFF Lightbox starting June 4

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.