Undine is director Christian Petzold’s follow up to his much-acclaimed 2018 effort, Transit, and, to use the old cliché, if you liked that, you’ll love this. Undine has the same gently surreal rhythms and mysteries that Transit did, and even shares much of the same cast. If, however, you’re among the Petzold unconverted, Undine won’t do anything to change that, with a slow pace and deliberate impenetrability that will put many off. It’s occasionally enchanting, but just as commonly frustrating, relying on the audience’s familiarity with an ancient myth to make any real sense, and spending a good deal of time going nowhere in particular.
An undine is a German mythological creature, a female water spirit who must marry a man to gain a human soul, and then kill that man if he is ever to break their bond. With this in mind, Undine opens ominously, as a young woman named Undine (Paula Beer) is broken up with at a coffee shop by her unfaithful boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz). In a grief-stricken haze, she meets industrial diver Christopher (Franz Rogowski), with whom she forms an instant connection. Beer and Rogowski make for sweet romantic leads, with a lovingly mellow energy between them even as Christopher starts to suspect that Undine may not quite belong in our world.
Petzold’s underwater scenes are gorgeous, and he finds a litany of compelling ways to present this dark, unfamiliar locale. The depths of a vast reservoir hold mystery and adventure, the inky water seeming to stretch on for eternity, while the scenes in which Christopher is sent down to fix underwater equipment are framed as if we’re looking at a diver statue in a fish tank, adding a welcome whimsicality to proceedings that is only enhanced by the presence of a giant, gentle catfish named Gunther.
Eventually, though, Undine starts to test your patience and, even at a mere 90 minutes, feels self-indulgent. Undine’s actions throughout are informed by the mythology underpinning the story, and if you don’t know the ins and outs of this lore, a few third-act plot movements are going to seem utterly ridiculous. Even if you are familiar, the slow movement of the story can be annoying, and there are a couple of moments where you realise that the most interesting thing you’ve seen in the last 10 minutes is an uninterrupted lecture on Berlin’s architectural history.
Your enjoyment of Undine will depend almost entirely on how quickly and completely you buy into its modern fairy-tale atmosphere. This is a film more concerned with mood than story, but it sets that mood in a way that keeps its audience at a distance, only occasionally inviting you in. There is pleasure to be found in exploring Petzold’s world, but the work you have to put in to doing so doesn’t feel worth it quite frequently enough.