Myth Within Modernity: Christian Petzold’s Undine

In classical mythology, undines are elemental beings of the water, predominantly conceived as female; they resemble humans but, lacking a soul, do not possess humanity’s spiritual immortality. Achieving this immortality requires conjugal union with a mortal man, with the caveat that he must remain faithful to her on pain of death. The elemental qualities of the undine, first articulated in antiquity via the alchemical studies of Paracelsus and the poesies of Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses, have consolidated over time into its classical formulation as a water nymph, depicted first in Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s 1811 novella Undine, and then more famously as the Little Mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale. Thenceforth, the undine finds her symbolic anchor within the fairytale mode as a liminal and otherworldly figure of beauty situated between the real and the fantastical, whose exotic attributes serve as objects of appropriation by man’s rational and spiritual faculties.

This appropriation arguably constitutes the textual groundwork of Undine, the latest film from German auteur Christian Petzold. Following an unofficial trilogy titled Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems (comprising the Stasi-era Barbara, post-Holocaust Phoenix, and fascist-anachronistic Transit), Undine likewise situates itself comfortably between genres, its spectral relationships with legend and the living world fleshed out in the same vein as Phoenix’s central ghost story or Transit’s architectural overlapping of authoritarian hierarchy and technological modernity. Dislocation and discontinuity characterise the film’s main conceit — a reworking of the myth of the undine — and its opening sequence would suggest, to those unacquainted with Petzold’s predisposition to ambiguity, either comic absurdity or facile clumsiness, or both. For a line like this is uttered in earnest: “If you leave, you have to die. Do you understand?”

The subject of this threat is Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a slick and well-groomed yuppie who has expressed doubts about his relationship with its issuer, Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer). Her face fills the shot; staring downward in stern contemplation, her auburn hair lightly waving in the wind, she processes his intimation of the end of their love. It is a face of surprise and disappointment, anger and pain. Promptly she has to leave for work. “I have a break in half an hour, and then I’ll come back. You’re going to wait here and tell me that you still love me, she instructs. When she looks back from the building across the street, he is seen pacing and on his phone, about to leave. She continues with her work. Afterwards, heading back to the café where they last met, she finds it empty.

He has broken the terms of their union, and will die. But first Undine — a historian and museum guide — meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who was in attendance at one of her tours. Beer and Rogowski, the ghostly lovers of Transit, are reunited; their love now burns brighter, promising happier times ahead. Christoph is a diver and welder, repairing the faults in the turbines of a lakeside dam. Each cares for the other gently and passionately: he listens to her history lectures, entranced, while she follows him into the lake’s depths, into the intimate spaces of his solitude. They bask in their shared tenderness, just the two of them committed to their bubble within the sprawling labyrinth of modern Berlin. Such is the joyful immortality captured by human and undine in their mutual affection and affirmation; naturally it will not last, for the debt from the preceding forfeiture has yet to be exacted, and historical myth will resist the forgiving amnesia of factual modernity.

On the surface, Undine appears open to two contrasting interpretations of its modality. The film is set in Berlin, post-reunification and in the present day (around “the 30th anniversary [of] the collapse of the GDR”). Modernity has won and the emplacement of the undine’s mythological subtext comes across as an experimental curio. On the other hand, Petzold interprets Undine’s watery origins very literally. She discards her breathing apparatus mid-dive without consequence; her ominous words at the start of the film are solemnly realised toward the end. Whether allegorical or otherwise, her character most definitely exists beyond the realm of symbolism, disrupting the erasure of folklore and such antiquated beliefs from the city’s cultural palimpsest. These conflicting modes, in direct opposition yet on equal footing, imply a benign disjunct of genre and tone. Undine and Christoph, and their tactilely supple romance, fit quietly into the dispassionate architecture around them.

Such pliability has been a staple and highlight of Petzold’s filmography: in the Ghosts trilogy, whose characters flit between spaces and identities, simultaneously chimeric and corporeal; as well as in his internationally acclaimed works. Where Phoenix birthed the image of a new woman from the ashes of war and betrayal, and Transit sought an uneasy amalgamation between historical trauma and currency, Undine, similarly, eschews political realism. Perhaps this might baffle one’s (not inaccurate) impression of Petzold as a filmmaker thoroughly engaged with political systems and their lasting ramifications; at times, entering one of his landscapes feels akin to experiencing a surreal disquiet, to be caught between two worlds and unable to seek refuge in either. Yet the landscapes of politics and history, ever more than before, always paint in both concrete and abstract terms their many artifacts. Continuing this discerning tradition, Undine explores not so much spatial or temporal discord than it examines the divergences in storytelling itself: its discursive function, to explicate reality, versus its interpretive function, to postulate the unobservable layers beneath.

Without foregrounding one over the other, Petzold parses out of Undine a seamless narrative, conjoining ideas and theses in beguilingly slight elision. The consensus of it being a relatively minor work in comparison to the hefty and devastating Phoenix has some merit, but may be attributed partly to the former’s presentation of various dialectical tensions in perpetual interplay. For one, the film lays some of its thematic concerns bare through exposition while hinting at others via subtler and possibly subconscious counterpointing. There is the spectre of history, looming over the city’s monuments of architecture past, present, and future. Undine, guiding members of the public through the museum’s city models — scaled down to dioramic proportion — and delivering polished lectures on their revampment and revisions, exposits the volatile hand of reconstruction beneath their smoothly lactescent edifices. An “idealised self-portrait of the socialist city shortly before its collapse” stands as an exhibit of East Berlin nostalgia, defined within strict museological parameters, its ideological context neutered by the gliding camera’s detached precision. In a presentation she rehearses to Christoph she discusses the Berliner Schloss, a 15th-century palace damaged during the Second World War and then demolished by its Soviet occupants. “The phantom pain of a violent amputation” was acutely felt by East Berlin’s inhabitants; a gaping wound in the city centre that in 2002 closed, through the Bundestag’s decision to rebuild it in what amounted to an exact “replica of the old façade”. Strikingly, this replica came to house the Humboldt Forum, a museum of non-European art. Undine’s engagement with the relationship between history and modernity finds its eloquent summation in Beer’s following line: “Modern architectural theory teaches us that the design of a building can be derived from the best possible realisation of its intended use. Form follows function.”

If Berlin’s post-war and post-reunification architecture represented the reconstruction of modernity from the ashes of history, their city models suggest that this reconstruction of modernity entails the reconstruction of history itself: a re-purposing of 20th-century legacy into 21st-century indices of livability, utility, and happiness. The romantic overtures of Undine’s first half appear to transcend these indices, to escape their scientific measurements; Undine and Christoph are content with their love and lives, and each caress, embrace, gesture of sexual intimacy underpins the specificity of their bond which Petzold pleasurably unspools while the broader surrounding geography remains distanced. But such a dichotomy is unstable and open to inversion; for, taking into account this picture-perfect solipsism of two lovers, would its enduring symbol of idyllic matrimony not imply broad abstraction, and the symbol’s contextually specific site of Berlin, conversely, a historical site jagged and inured, of generational trauma and denial, demolition and reconstitution? And what better conceit to illustrate the mercurial tussle between the generic and the specific, the political and the post-ideological, the romantic and the rational than myth’s imposition within modernity?

On a more implicit level, the distinction between land and water, terranean and subterranean affirms Undine’s dialectical foundations upon which Petzold’s spectral romance blossoms and then withers, personifying much of the film’s thematic conflicts without quite resolving them. The immortal and unchanging depths of the sea, like the undine, do not possess the spiritual immortality of humanity and the land, and Undine, renouncing corporeal permanence, searches for wholeness above. In a rather ironic switch of identities, the nymph of the water presides over city landscapes whereas Christoph, human and Berliner, finds his calling underwater. Each strives for a place in which they do not naturally belong; each seeks in the other an acceptance of their own identity. Hence the latter’s enthusiastic reception of her historical surveys; and Undine, after being ‘revived’ by Christoph to the tune of Stayin’ Alive, coyly requests him to perform the resuscitation again. The undertones of Germany’s reunification process may be painfully conspicuous to some, yet the striking thing about Undine is its persistent ambiguity on who reunifies with whom.

That Petzold’s love story and myth serve as conduits for his political interrogations marks a kind of departure from his (possibly) more accessible frameworks. In 2000’s The State I Am In, the past catches up to a militant couple from the Baader-Meinhof Group; their daughter, born into a later generation, nonetheless has no recourse from this legacy. Similarly, the supernatural canvas of Yella applies its uncanny varnish through literal ghost haunts and illusory ontological layers. Undine, in adopting a mythological framework, resists simple classification even as, paradoxically, its tendency towards explication threatens to intellectualise and complicate. Its myth, parallel to history, has evolved and metamorphosed: from the study of elements to an archetype of classical beauty, and then to its romantic sublimation within the fairytale genre. This symbolic pluralism in turn uproots its mythological origins from their transcendental signification. While the woman herself might be a single character, her name reveals many faces.

In so doing, Petzold mirrors myth within history and attempts to transpose the former onto the world of lived reality. While neither overpowers the other, they encroach into the other’s spaces, breaking down presumably stable boundaries in favour of flux. Myth acquires a twofold signification in Undine: as a possible alternative to reality, and as a spectre of what reality attempts to erase and rewrite. Going back to Johannes, his departure in the film’s opening sets in motion the inevitable series of events that presage and precipitate tragedy. Undine, yearning for love on land, finds and loses his; the land betrays her, but also erases her and her past (Berlin, Slavic for “dry place in the marsh”, first emerged as a cluster of trading settlements in the 13th century). And so her curse is to destroy those who destroy her, inadvertently destroying those who create and mend as well. For her happiness with Christoph is threatened by the shadow of the past; perhaps it is fate that Johannes will always precede Christoph, and that there will be tragedy before happiness, and tragedy after.

Thus the film foreshadows its melancholic conclusion through its title; as Johannes comes to haunt Undine, her slightest wavering agonises Christoph, who falls into a coma during a diving accident. Unable to save him, she takes the only other course of action she knows: to kill Johannes and disappear back into the water forever. Right as the last bubbles recede — the lady of the water returning to her origins — Christoph wakes from his slumber, devastated. He cannot find her anywhere. Two years later, happily engaged to a coworker, Christoph has a vision of her while diving. In the dead of night he returns to the lake, submerging himself, apparently determined to rejoin his former lover.

No such ending awaits them. He emerges, soaking but alive, into the arms of his sobbing fiancé. They walk off into the distance; we look on from the water before slowly lowering our gaze into the deep. The closing shot — Undines fate, away from land — concludes the opening’s foreboding implications. Then, her face bore sadness and contemplation; now, we do not see it, for the myth has been realised and the fate sealed. Undine’s fairytale atmosphere and frictionless editing, courtesy of Petzold’s longtime editor Bettina Böhler, belies the eternal deferral of myth from modernity, and vice versa. While its dreamlike sequences, enunciated through the refrain of Bach’s Concerto in D Minor: Adagio, coyly envision the possibility of myth as reality, they too hint at the nagging realisation that such a possibility remains tethered to the world of dreams. In reality, Undine and Christoph are of two different worlds and trapped between them; when one sleeps, the other awakens. At the height of their passion the two invent an endearing ritual: with one of them on the train, the other runs alongside trying to keep up. Of course they never succeed because the train moves faster than they can run. Likewise, in attempting to realise a myth and live forever within it, the lovers find themselves outpaced by the unyielding currents of modernity.