Evaluation: ‘Undine’ is a strange, captivating mermaid-meets-man love story

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The great German writer-director Christian Petzold has a number of recurring fixations: females in trouble, doomed romance, the specters of a grim past hovering over an unsettled present. In film after mysterious, melancholy film, he’s shuffled and reshuffled these noirish elements, placing them in revealing new constructions even when he sometimes depends on the same faces. In his brilliant 2019 drama, “Transit, ” Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer played two almost-lovers caught in a kind of temporal loop: It was a wartime melodrama that kept running in circles, turning its characters directly into captives of history or genre or both.

Beer and Rogowski are back in Petzold’s strange, steadily entrancing new picture, “Undine, ” only this time there are nothing “almost” about their particular love story and nothing uncertain about their time period. We are in present-day Bremen, though Undine Wibeau (Beer) dips frequently into the previous in her work as a historian and guide, explaining how the city’s recent growth reflects and sometimes conceals the scars of its war-ravaged history. You wouldn’t always guess, from her wise black suit and the girl nimble recitations, that she is in fact the particular Undine, the water sprite of ancient Western lore whose love for a human has granted her human form. That’s exactly where this movie’s sly conceptual gambit — and almost each Petzold movie has one particular — comes into play.

His filmmaking is often premised on fascinating contradictions associated with tone and subject. The devotee of classic The show biz industry, Petzold delights in the conventions of old thrillers plus melodramas, their pulpy joys and overripe contrivances. For all that, his diamond-hard surfaces are exceedingly poised, even cool to the touch. “Undine” is a poker-faced fairy tale, a fantasy wrought by a committed cinematic realist. It’s an example of what sort of filmmaker can take an unrealistic central idea and perform it beautifully straight.

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Paula Beer in the movie "Undine."

Paula Beer in the movie “Undine. ”

(IFC Films)

We initial meet Undine as she’s being dumped by the girl lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) for another woman — the betrayal that might seem banal if not for the almost otherworldly pain we see in her downcast gaze. “If you leave me, Ill have to kill you. You know that, ” she says, more solemn than angry since she invokes their binding supernatural contract. But before the lady can make good on that will promise, Johannes leaves and another young man, Christoph (Rogowski), is suddenly sweeping Undine off her feet, in the scene that’s by transforms funny, eerie and ardently romantic. Technically, they each get swept off their own feet, flooded with drinking water and bits of broken cup when an aquarium ruptures nearby — a startling accident that feels like a true blessing, even a baptism, of their marriage. It also carries a warning: A few of that broken glass draws blood.

Undine isn’t the only half of this particular couple with an affinity with regard to water. Christoph, an commercial diver, spends hours underneath the surface of a nearby lake, welding underwater artifacts and casting an occasionally awestruck eye on the wildlife. (This slippery tale of passionate entrapment may not be a catfishing narrative but it does feature a first-rate catfish. )

Beneath the surface, amid gorgeously photographed colors of bubbly blue-green (shot by Petzold’s longtime cinematographer, Hans Fromm), the movie’s romance deepens and so perform its mysteries. Undine and Christoph dive headlong in to desire, embracing each other’s worlds with playful forego and refusing to allow each other go — a concept sweetly conveyed by the repeated image of Christoph running alongside Undine’s train as it drags into or away from a station.

There are some sly mythological foreshadowing to those arrivals and take-offs. But there’s also a deeper fascination with the very shape plus structure of Berlin, whose open plazas, clustered systems and criss-crossing railway ranges are sometimes glimpsed from a distance, but mostly represented with the enormous size model that will Undine presents to the community. Beautifully and imperfectly, these structures bear witness towards the extraordinary transformation of a city that was destroyed, partitioned plus reunified in the last century, plus which was originally built generations ago over the swamps plus marshes from which Undine most probably arose.

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer walk around Berlin in the movie "Undine."

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in the movie “Undine. ”

(IFC Films)

In one enchanting-verging-on-ridiculous scene, Undine rehearses her next spiel aloud during an intimate moment with Christoph, making explicit the link between this fantastical love story and its historic and architectural foundations. Is Undine, a lover of men, also a kind of guardian to humanity? Do the girl bonds with Christoph plus Johannes — whose ultimate return sends the story spiraling toward tragedy — reflect the conflicted spirit of Berlin itself, struggling to reconcile the old and the new? That’s a much less graceful interpretation than Petzold, a master of effective ambiguity in films like “Barbara” and “Phoenix, ” would typically allow. But in a movie that finds your pet playing freely with mythological archetypes, perhaps blunter, more concrete metaphors are only to become expected.

From one point Undine creates the classic design concept that “form follows function, ” a rule that will Petzold seems to both flout and uphold here. “Undine” has its eccentricities — it’s surely the only movie whose musical motifs really are a Bach piano concerto and “Stayin’ Alive” — but its unfussy compositions and fluid editing have the same stylish precision as the filmmaker’s earlier work. Its most lyrical effects are exquisitely easy: Somehow, the red associated with Undine’s tousled hair as well as the aquamarine of her drapes convey more undercurrents of sensation than any elaborate CGI frippery would.

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Beer, whose face can fill with joy one minute and darken with fear and anxiety the next, is matched in intensity by Rogowski, who makes Christoph so vulnerably lovesick that you may start to fear for your pet. The actors’ connection feels so right and so accurate that it works its own type of magic, to the point where the story’s fantastical context could almost blur into insignificance, though it never does. In “Transit, ” these two actors were mere ships passing in the night; in “Undine, ” it’s an excitement just to watch them make the leap.

‘Undine’

In German with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 moments

Playing: Opens June 4, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Regal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Claremont 5, Claremont; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle City Center 5, Encino; also on digital and VOD