The Petzold Mermaid

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Screening German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s Hitchcockian thriller Phoenix at the 2015 Miami Film Festival – followed by a hugely popular run at the Tower Theater Miami later that summer – is one of my biggest highlights of the past decade in film. I’ll never forget sitting at the back of the auditorium for that stunning climactic scene where I could feel the audience so collectively shocked that everyone simultaneously forgot to breathe.

Shared moments like those give me goosebumps!

Christian Petzold is one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers, and his work benefits immensely from being seen on the big screen, with a hushed, attentive audience. So I’m thrilled to share that (after first premiering at Miami Film Festival GEMS 2020) Petzold’s new intricate puzzle, Undine, will be opening at Tower Theater Miami on Friday, June 4th.

There’s a lot to unpack in the movie, it’s full of rich visual symbols and clues, all the while telling a fascinating adult update of a classic fairytale that we are all familiar with. When Petzold became a father a few years ago, he re-read some of the fairy tales of his youth to his own young children, including The Little Mermaid, and that led him to think about Undine, a Prussian variation of the mermaid myth created in 1811 by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. A well-known children’s classic in its day, Motte Fouqué’s story is relatively obscure today, having been long eclipsed by the world-wide domination of Disney animation. Petzold told Teresa Vena of Cineuropa that the inspiration for his ninth and latest film, Undine, came from noticing that the mermaid of legend “exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse.”

A horrible curse indeed. Petzold updates Undine as a modern-day Berlin young woman, Undine Wibeau (Paula Beers), who grapples with a struggle to be her own modern, independent woman, to be able to love and leave men as she may choose. In this, she is connected to Nelly Lenz, the heroine played by Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Phoenix, who struggles to be recognized for who she is, in what is literally a new skin. Both Phoenix and Undine are also influenced by Petzold’s repulsion to the character of Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, who obsessively seeks to control, remake and possess a woman who reminds him of another lost love…a loss beyond his control.

We meet Undine in a moment of fluttering frustration. Her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) has met her in a café to bluntly inform her he is seeing another woman, and that he’s leaving Undine – dropping the bombshell on her while she’s on a very brief break from her job at the Stadtentwicklung museum across the street. Furious, Undine tells Johannes she will have to kill him – and it seems like a much more real threat than the type of hyperbole that might be understandable in a moment of shock such as this. That’s because…it is a real threat.

Johannes has timed his revelation for this moment because he knows it will be easy for him to jettison the uncomfortable situation. The flustered Undine is forced to return to work and complete her shift as a tour guide historian, which she does, regaining her professional composure for a presentation to a visiting international delegation. She insists Johannes waits for her at the café, but by the time Undine returns, Johannes is, of course, long gone.

Instead, Undine runs into Christoph, an industrial diver who has just been repairing the underwater infrastructure of the Jannowitz Bridge over the Spree river nearby, but has stopped by for a break and happened to catch Undine’s lecture at the Stadtentwicklung. Like a deer in the headlights, Undine initially appears too frazzled to be able to respond to Christoph’s friendly overtures, but in a freak accident, the café’s massive, beautiful aquarium bursts, knocking Christoph and Undine to the floor and forcing them into each others’ arms, drenching them in water (and goldfish). Staring into each others’ eyes, they are baptized as instant star-crossed lovers. (Paula Beers played the romantic heroine in Petzold’s previous feature, Transit, opposite Franz Rogowoski, who returns in Undine to play Christoph; continuing the remarkable chemistry these two superb actors established in the earlier film.)

How’s that for a fast turn-around? No grieving process, no endless therapy bills, no continuous looking back and obsessing over the past for months before being able to finally move on – Undine just plunges straight ahead into a sweet new relationship with her sexy ‘n’ sensitive working-class bloke. We are mystified and fascinated by Undine’s unconventionality. Her boyfriend broke up with her less than one hour previously in this very location, and she had sworn to kill him. But now she magically forgets all about Johannes and embarks on a spontaneous and buoyant love affair with Christoph. If it all seems like the life of a princess in a fairy tale…that’s because, in a sense, it is.

We get the sense of Undine’s happiness in her new relationship with Christoph. She’s so much freer and lighter than she was when we first met her – Christoph adores her and makes no demands on her of any sort. She’s free to meet him or not meet him as she may wish. For Undine, it’s liberty! And she did not have to go through the trauma of killing Johannes after all. All is well – until, that is, she is out for a walk in the city streets with Christoph, and by chance they cross paths with Johannes and his new lover. Undine says nothing, but her heart skips a beat. She is struck by a fear that she may not escape her “horrible curse” – of being intractably tied to her first love, Johannes, whom she may never be able to shake. And her fear is well-founded. After that encounter, Johannes returns to the Stadtentwicklung to ambush Undine and insist that she become his again. More than one character will still need to shed their mortal coil.

Petzold’s films are intricately constructed puzzles. Watching his films for the first time, you might be aware that you don’t fully understand what is happening in story terms, but that you are in a state of trusting surrender to a filmmaker guiding you through an astonishing journey – a rare and wonderful sensation. In this aspect, the filmmaker whom Petzold most reminds me of is Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died in 1996 after the completion of his Trois Couleurs trilogy.

In Undine, Petzold includes long sequences following Undine at her job at the Stadtentwicklung, as she lectures tourists on various aspects of the history of watery Berlin (it was built on marshlands) and its architecture. These lecture scenes are detailed, long and fascinating – too long to be in this film just as anecdotal information. True to form, Petzold buries the key to his mysterious puzzle deep inside Undine’s intellectual monologues. Listen carefully to what Undine says when she zeroes in on the Berlin Palace, a mammoth 18th century structure that was the regal home of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Destroyed during the Second World War and subsequently neglected by the GDR, just in the past decade (after years of public debate) has the Berlin Palace begun a complete and faithful exterior reconstruction of the original. Undine allows her personal view to seep into this lecture, as she disdains the desire to keep the past in tact – after all, it is her own past that she is seeking to escape. Since there are no more royal families in modern Germany, the new Berlin Palace will instead be a museum. Undine cooly scorns the irony of this basic architectural theory fail: form is not following function in this revival. A 21st century complex with an 18th century design – thus proving that “progress is impossible”?

It may be Petzold’s point-of-view as well. The past always catches up with us and we always are who we are. Tragedy strikes Christoph and Undine’s “Camelot” and each lover will in turn experience something similar to the “phantom pain of an amputated limb”, as Undine says in another observation on the Berlin Palace. A later line of dialogue in the film spoken by Christoph – “If you love someone, you have to tell them the truth” – may very well serve as Petzold’s perspective on why progress is impossible in personal relationships. The truth always hurts, at least at first. There’s a majestic sense of defeat that looms over the deep romantic sheen and the opulent sense of melancholy of Undine, in line with what seems like the net pessimism of the Petzold universe.

Is that pessimism the product of Petzold’s level view of his homeland as it has evolved in his lifetime? Petzold is turning 60 this year, and he was 30 and completing film school at the time of Germany’s Reunification. As an artist, Petzold’s vision is perhaps how he sees his country’s intractable inability to escape its complicated legacy weighs heavily on the present day relationships of its citizens – much as Undine’s legacy weighed on her own, almost willfully amnesiac attempts to move beyond. It is not just the Berlin Palace on which reconstruction decisions need to be made. Petzold’s Yella interrogated the anxiety and trauma of the millions of East Germans who were abruptly folded into a Western-style capitalist economy in the newly reunified Germany. Jerichow indicted the German factions of xenophobia against immigrants – particularly Turkish immigrants. Barbara examined Germany’s upwardly mobile social amnesia, its rush to forget that 25% of its population had been living without freedom in a totalitarian society less than 20 years prior. (Barbara may be the only film in the Petzold oeuvre that ends on a hopeful note, but that’s open to debate as well.) Phoenix confronted the “recreation” process that Germany went through after they lost the Second World War, where Germans who had been quick to betray other Germans were eager to sweep their transgressions under the rug, while others did not want to believe the extent of their own people’s treachery until they saw irrefutable evidence of it. Undine is the latest, and one of the most very beautiful, “chapters” in the grand cinematic “novel” that is Petzold’s life work.

Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.