Undine is in a posh café having a row with Johannes, a man with a slicked parting that makes him eminently punchable at first sight. He’s about to leave her for someone else. She tells him to wait there till she gets back from work “if you really love me”. Otherwise, “I’ll have to kill you”.
Strangely, he seems to stay for a while, but when she returns from work the cafe is empty. She goes into the gents toilets to search for Johannes, and when she returns, she sees Christoph. Christoph is played by Franz Rogowski, so you know he’s going to be clumsy, ungainly and not able to express himself easily.
Sure enough, its not long before Christoph has knocked over the café aquarium (yes, its that sort of café) and as the pair lie in a pool of water and floundering fish on the floor, the barman screams at them that he hopes they’ve got insurance. Its at this stage that the film takes a weird turn.
Cut to: a lake where Christoph is in a diving suit rescuing a body. He punches the chest while singing Staying Alive, cos as everybody knows, that has the exact bpm needed to best perform CPR. This is a rare moment of levity in a film that tends to treat itself much more seriously than it really should.
There follows various plot twists which involve Undine and Christoph walking past Johannes and his new girlfriend, Christoph dying and not dying, Undine having a phone conversation with him while he’s dead, and a whole load of underwater activity which looks sumptuous but makes no sense at all.
If you do your background reading (and there’s no reason you should, its only a bloody film), Undine was a mythical water nymph who could only live through the love of a good man. And here is the big problem with the film. Unless you know this, many of the things which happen on the screen are entirely inexplicable. And if you do, why do you need to see this modern update when you can see or read the myth?
Undine, the film, always has the impression that it knows something that you don’t, which may be taken as intelligent and sophisticated by a certain sort of film viewer, but just comes over as smug to me. Maybe repeating an old myth is an oblique criticism of modern society where stories have to, like, make sense. Or maybe the director is just taking the excuse to do what he wants.
Undine’s job is to explain the renovation of East Berlin since the fall of the wall to people in suits. This discussion is full of promise, particularly as they started talking about the highly controversial reconstruction of the Palast der Republik (former home of the DDR parliament). But it never leads anywhere.
The main effect of the renovation process has been rising rents, gentrification and a district where only fashionable architects and film makers can afford to live. We see none of this in the film. To a degree, there’s no reason why we should, but you can’t help feeling that the subject has been only raised to give the film an air of relevance, yet if you scratch beyond the surface there is no substance to be found.
As if to highlight the problem, the film was preceded by a cartoon, an advert for ARTE I think. It tells the story of how scientists tested lab rats as a precursor to developing gills on Patrick Duffy, so that he could play the Man from Atlantis. Covering some remarkably similar themes to the film that followed, it was cleverer, more surreal and much more funny.
Undine is unquestionably well filmed and the acting is impeccable. And yet is has very little to say, while acting as if its message is deeply profound. That is a combination which can quickly lead to deep disappointment.