This romantic drama from director Christian Petzold reunties actors Paula Beer (Franz) and Franz Rogowski who starred together in his film Transit a couple of years ago. She plays Undine, a historian in a Berlin museum who lectures select audiences about the city’s urban design. He’s Christoph, a commercial diver who meets her just after she’s been dumped by her current boyfriend (Jacob Matschenz, “Charité”) who she’s told, “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.” In a well-known European folk tale, Undine is a water nymph who who becomes human when she falls in love with a man but has to kill him and return to the deep if he is unfaithful to her. In the film, Undine slowly reveals her true self through a beautiful and bittersweet fantasy-tinged love story.
The scene is set from the moment Undine and Christoph meet. It’s an odd but apt meet-cute. She’s staring at the statue of a diver in an aquarium in the coffeehouse where her boyfriend dumped her. Christoph tries to talk to her, but she’s transfixed. But then the aquarium gets knocked off its perch, exploding and knocking them both down, creating an instant connection. There’s nothing supernatural about the relationship. It’s just sweet and fun. That is until he takes her diving with him and suddenly loses her and sees her swimming without her tank. She pretends to drown and lets him revive her, but it’s the first inkling that something about her is “different.”
The film cuts back and forth between Undine’s day job as she delivers her lectures about the changing nature of the city (they’re fascinating, BTW) and Christoph’s welding gig underwater with a visit from a gargantuan catfish. But center stage is their romance, and when that’s threatened the film shifts further into the realm of myth.
It’s a beautifully shot film with haunting music and outstanding performances from two actors with great chemistry. Paula Beer deservedly won the best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for this role. Not being aware of the Undine myth certainly took away from my understanding of the film on that level. (I looked it up afterwards and am considering a repeat viewing.) But even without knowing the folklore, I was taken with this unusual love story. And I recommend it to viewers who like a good romance, or a fantasy (think The Shape of Water with a beautiful monster), or German cinema.
In select theaters, digital, and VOD.