“If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you.”
Those words are not an empty threat by a thwarted woman. Christian Petzold’s Undine retells the folklore/myth of a water nymph who is compelled by her nature to destroy an unfaithful lover. That underlying story has found somewhat softer and gentler treatments that most of us are more familiar with in The Little Mermaid. But all of those tales, I believe, hold an environmental warning we should be heeding.
In this telling of the story, we begins with what is obviously the breaking up of a relationship. Undine (Paula Beer) is listening to Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) telling her it’s over. She is not ready for it to end, but she is pressed to get to work. (She is a historical lecturer on Berlin’s architecture.) She demands he waits until she can return. When he’s not at the café, she looks for him and encounters Christoph (Franz Rogowski), who has heard her lecture. He is an industrial diver who is in town for some work. After an accident in the restaurant that breaks an aquarium, the two begin to date. The first half of the film is the developing of their love story.
At this point, it is helpful to know the underlying myth, which I think is probably more well known in Germany than in America. The water spirit Undine seeks to gain a human soul through the love of a human. But when that human is unfaithful, she must kill him and return to the water. So after Johannes’s rejection, she is bound to kill him. But when she connects with Christoph, it appears that she feels all will be well. But the cosmic forces of the myth will not allow for her to escape her fate.
The film seems to want us to see that there are two worlds at play. We see it when Undine lectures about the rebuilding of Berlin after the war. We see a model of the city with old and new buildings. It is the same city, but a very different city.
The same is true of the world of the water and the land. The underwater scenes are about Christoph when he is diving. There he sees “Big Gunther”, a 6’ long catfish. He also finds Undine’s name along with a heart on one of the underwater structures. Here he is the outsider, not really a part of that realm.
People build cities—and rebuild them when they are destroyed. But what of the natural world? Have humans essentially been unfaithful as Johannes had been? Is that what underlies the dangers of climate change? Is it the natural world seeking revenge? Is it the cosmic and karmic forces that we cannot escape?
I am reminded that fairytales are often not happy stories for reading to children at bedtime. Very often they are horror stories meant to scare us into acting as we ought. I think Undine is really in the latter category.
Undine is in theaters where open and available of VOD.
Photos courtesy of IFC Films