« The Taunting of Hill House | Main | But Where Are You Tomorrow? »

Nymphal Leper

Christian Schulz/IFC Films

Undine (2020)

There is a crucial scene about halfway through “Undine” that makes it obvious this is a movie made by men. In this scene, Undine (Paula Beer) is working on a new presentation she must give while her boyfriend Christoph (Franz Rogowski) sleeps. He wakes up, pulls the duvet around himself, and asks to hear her work. She tries to fob him off, but he insists, and as she begins her speech – she is a historian of Berlin, who gives lectures to tourists and other interested parties about the architecture of the city and what it represents – he gives her his entire attention. It is meltingly attractive, how entranced by Undine Christoph is. There is not a woman in the world who would prevaricate over a good and decent man who feels this strongly about her and demonstrates it by taking an interest in her work. And yet. It’s the movie’s major mistake.

Christoph is an industrial diver, working in dangerous underwater conditions to keep the city safe. He works with a partner – whose name, Monika (Maryam Zaree), is unforgivably only given in the credits – who literally keeps him grounded; and their easy rapport and trust is very refreshing. And Undine – well. She is a mystery. There is a shot of her (not to be spoiled) that is the most surprisingly beautiful underwater scene since Shelley Winters’s in “The Night of the Hunter” (although that was not a special effect, as this one clearly and regrettably is). Christoph is a person of the body, who works with his hands and risks his life for his living. Undine is a person of the mind, who knows the story of Berlin better than she knows herself, or certainly better than writer-director Christian Petzold allows us to know her. He has her wrapped up in Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a pencil of a man whose appeal is very real to Undine, but hard for the rest of us to see. Especially when Christoph is right there, running alongside the train as it pulls into the station so he’ll be at the correct door, smiling, when Undine steps off.

Ms. Beer is a composed beauty whose Undine combines extraordinary intelligence with a taste for danger that’s chilling because it’s so calm. Christoph is, right from their meet-cute under an exploding fish tank, her obvious perfect match; and the fact the movie insists on fighting their romance is inexplicable. The major plot twist could still go ahead and the final section of the movie would have been a tearjerker for all time if only Mr. Petzold really understood a woman’s heart. Or even Undine’s heart. In the decisive moment, it’s clear she doesn’t know why she does what she does. All Mr. Petzold had to do was give her a reason, but he didn’t. It’s a strange decision, understandable only when you realize he clearly has no idea what a woman wants. It’s not necessarily a wealthy man, who can take you on fancy trips and whose house has a pool. It’s an honest one, whose face lights up when he sees you and who knows your body well enough to understand every beat of your heart.

In spite of all this, “Undine” is worth seeing due to the specificity of its setting and of the way in which the work Undine and Christoph do shapes who they are. And for that underwater shot. And for Mr. Rogowski’s face when he smiles up at Monika, or when he looks at Undine and you can feel his heart pulsing in his chest. It’s maddening to see something so close to the real thing slip away, but you shouldn’t miss it for the world.


Post a comment

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

© 2008-2021 Critic's Notebook and its respective authors. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Subscribe to Critic's Notebook | Follow Us on Twitter | Contact Us | Write for Us | Reprints and Permissions