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Courtesy of Curzon

German arthouse icon Christian Petzold on Undine: a supernatural love story

The Transit filmmaker’s latest offering stars Paula Beer as an art historian in Berlin who has a passionate affair with a diver, played by actor Franz Rogowski

Christian Petzold has a headache. “I received my vaccination yesterday,” the German arthouse pioneer tells me, in April, from his home in Berlin. “I have a fever and I’m a little bit down.” The 60-year-old director, one of the most respected names in world cinema, has joined my Zoom meeting 30 minutes early because he’s unable to do anything else. When I offer to reschedule, he responds, with a grin, “No, this could be better! It’s a little bit as if I’ve received LSD. I won’t lie. I will tell you the truth.”

LSD, I note, would be an appropriate alternative to popcorn for Petzold’s latest film, Undine. Starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, the hypnotic, supernatural love story transports the viewer to a version of Berlin that feels underwater. The camera floats; characters drift; or perhaps it’s all in my imagination. My first viewing was at 9am, after setting my alarm for 8:50am, due to the London Film Festival’s strict schedule for online press screenings. Subsequently, I watched Undine in bed in a dream state and adored every minute – it was our sixth favourite film of 2020. “I like that very much,” Petzold says. “The German Romantics wrote their novels in the night or early in the morning, so it’s not far from their experience.”

My second viewing differed drastically because I’d researched what the undine myth actually entails. In the opening scene, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) breaks up with Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) over coffee. “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” Undine warns. That same day, Undine, a museum tour guide, is chatted up by Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a diver who adores her lectures on Berlin’s architecture. Then reality crumbles and the origins of Undine’s name pull the story to exhilarating, watery depths. For anyone unfamiliar with 16th century European folklore, the dazzling third act is where LSD or a post-vaccine headache fills in the gaps.

Petzold was advised by friends to include an introductory text outlining the fable. Still, the director refused. “Nobody knows the undine myth,” he says. “In Germany, too, they know the word ‘undine’, they know it’s something to do with water nymphs, but they don’t know the story behind it. And when you don’t know something and it’s surrounding you, you have to work.” He compares it to the westerns he consumed as a child that were based on Greek myths and Bible stories he’d not yet been taught. “I like movies that don’t explain it concretely.”

So much so, Beer instead identified a critique of modern dating. “Paula read the script without (knowing about the) undine myth. For her, it was about a young woman who hates Tinder, who hates social networks, who hates the capitalism of bodies.”

Undine marks Petzold’s first feature after the “Love in the Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, which consisted of Barbara, Phoenix and Transit. While Undine was supposed to launch a new trilogy, it shares DNA with Petzold’s past films, such as a female lead who feels out of place, both geographically and metaphysically. Moreover, Undinecontinues Petzold’s obsession with water: the endings of Barbara, Transit and Jerichow; the swimming of Something to Remind Me; the attempted drownings of Wolfsburg and Yella.

Undine and Christoph, though, dive into the Spree River and enters James Cameron territory. “Underwater sequences have to be in a cinema,” Petzold sighs, acknowledging VOD’s limits. “A cinema is a tank for our bodies. We’re with our bodies physically, but our mind is not in the room. When I was 11 and saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it was as if the whole audience was underwater. But if you’re alone in front of a TV? I love underwater sequences because there’s no dialogue. The acoustics are based on gestures and sounds in your head. You hear things better in a cinema. It’s not good to see it on a TV with shit (speakers) from a supermarket.”

The first six days of production involved a water tank at Berlin’s Babelsberg studio and establishing an aquatic mise-en-scène. “I’m religious when I’m thinking about cinema,” Petzold admits. “The camera must be affected by things the camera sees. I don’t like camera work where the camera is full of vanity. The camera has to be modest. The camera sees two young bodies dancing underwater, and the camera – this machinery – feels jealous, and wants to be part of it.”

A week later, on land, Petzold noticed something strange. “I was thinking: what is happening to the actors? They’re moving through their apartment, through the city as if they’re underwater. They don’t talk so much. They make circles with their bodies around each other, like a dance scene, like a Max Ophül’s movie. This, I liked so much. For me, Berlin’s also underwater.”

In fact, Berlin was built on a swamp and named after a West Slavic word for “swamp”, hence its many canals. Petzold explains to me that Berlin dried itself up to construct an urban city with “no history, no myths”. In Petzold’s mind, fairy tale creatures gravitate towards swamps and forests, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; when Berlin modernised itself, nymphs and elves became “like skeletons of dead fish on the sand” and had to find regular jobs.

So Undine elucidates at length to tour groups about architecture with a soothing, assertive cadence, to the extent that Petzold’s children played him ASMR videos after their first viewing. In her lectures, Undine fixates on the Berlin Palace, a landmark that was bombed during World War II, torn down in 1950, then reconstructed after unification as a museum called the Humboldt Forum. Its present design reflects Prussian Baroque architecture. “In the centre of Berlin now stands a museum built in the 21st century in the form of an 18th century ruler’s palace,” Undine whispers to Christoph during foreplay, fuelling the debate as to whether ASMR is sexual. “The deceptive part lies in the hypothesis that this makes no real difference, which is the same as claiming that progress is impossible.”

On the Humboldt Forum, Petzold comments, “It’s a supermarket in the form of a castle. Capitalism destroys development, it destroys experiences. In modern architecture, like Bauhaus or Frank Lloyd Wright, the aesthetic is to do with function. But if you make retro music with old instruments or video clips as if you’ve used a 35mm camera from the ‘40s – retro is nothing. No development is possible if these architects are sitting in their positions.”

Petzold then theorises that love, however, evolves, and that Undine and Christoph’s romance diverges from Romeo and Juliet’s. He uses the analogy of slasher movies that repeat a formula, play on tropes, but offer new scares. “You see other monsters! You see history!” The director pauses. “I think now the fever is talking.”

Although Beer and Rogowski also starred in Transit, Petzold’s more closely associated with Nina Hoss, the actor with whom he shot six movies, starting with 2001’s Something to Remind Me and most recently with 2014’s Phoenix. The pair would discuss how the undine myth, particularly the male ownership angle, relates to the word “muse”. Petzold says, “Avant-garde movies (like Vertigo) forgot to think about women… I’d rather see the world through Kim Novak’s eyes, not James Stewart’s.” So with Hoss, Petzold wanted her to “look back at me”.

“When I see a Hitchcock movie, the pictures are looking back at me. Everyone (describes Hitchcock) as this fat, old, ugly guy who wants to fuck blonde girls like Tippi Hedren. For me, it’s not that. Something’s looking back. This makes fear. This is, for me, the mentality of the Hitchcock style. I love it so much.”

“Avant-garde movies (like Vertigo) forgot to think about women… I’d rather see the world through Kim Novak’s eyes, not James Stewart’s” – Christian Petzold

As for why Petzold started shooting with Beer instead of Hoss, the director downplays any drama. “Paula was a tip by Nina after Frantz by François Ozon. It’s not like one muse is getting too old, and the next muse is younger. When a journalist asked me after Transit if Paula is my new muse, I said, ‘No, it’s Franz Rogowski.’”

In Transit, Rogowski ruminates on a train in a lengthy, mesmerising sequence; in Undine, Beer meditates in a carriage as scenery passes by. In contrast, Petzold’s earlier films were car-dominated. Is this to do with protagonists no longer controlling their destiny?

“Cars are dying,” Petzold says. “My children don’t have a driver’s license. When I was their age, a car was the first thing I wanted. A car is a kind of cinema. It’s a space with a CD player. You have a windshield, like a screen. The people inside are the audience and the actors. I love the first five minutes of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, because, in the car, they’re sitting like they’re in a cinema, but talking.”

He continues, “In old movies, trains are like stagecoaches – six people in a room, three on each side, staring at each other. Today, on trains, it’s like sitting in planes. What’s happening to conversations? One of my teachers said we have to do movies so that people in 20 years know how we kissed, how we loved, how we walked, how we saw the world. In my next movie, there’s a car at the beginning, but it’s broken after two minutes… I love my car but society’s changed.” How does Petzold’s adoration for cars explain the fatal vehicular crashes of Yella, Wolfsburg and Jerichow? “When I’m sat beside the driver, I’m a little terrified.”

Inspired by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Petzold took his son to America for a road trip. “I wanted to be in a 19th century father-and-son story; he wanted to live like in GTA, the videogame. We had to sleep in cheap motels, eat in cheap places. We had to drive miles to Los Angeles and Venice Beach – places you find in GTA.” Petzold insisted they walk to 29 Palms and live out an Antonioni movie. When they returned to the car, his laptop was destroyed by the sun; he lost his script for Transit. “I had no backup. I was in a bad mood because of the death of my friend (regular cowriter) Harun Farocki. I said: it’s a sign.”

The original Transit was a World War II story. Petzold rewrote it, from scratch, to reflect the modern era; Rogowski and Beer play refugees who attempt to flee Nazi-occupied Europe by boat in what looks like 21st century Marseilles. While Phoenix earned Petzold his best reviews to date (Time Magazine recently named it the sixth best film of the decade), the destroyed laptop inspired him to never shoot a period picture again. “It’s as if I know more than the story. It’s an arrogant position. I don’t like it. I have to say, my son’s GTA games helped me.”

In Transit, Georg (Rogowski) learns that Marie (Beer) died at sea; he fantasises that she returns from the dead, somehow surviving her drowning. So Petzold recast the actors in a spiritual, watery sequel. In Undine, their romance is tender, believable, and reminiscent of classic Hollywood. As for why they have sex under a blanket, Petzold told Cineuropa, pre-lockdown, in February 2020, “I don’t like sex scenes. I can’t recall any good sex scenes besides Don’t Look Now… you are always aware of the director’s input. I want the sex scenes to belong to the characters.”

”When I see the world of my children, when they’re in clubs in Berlin, they’re surrounded by a sexuality that’s not like the sexuality of the 50s when you know that you’re gay or not gay“ – Christian Petzold

However, in October 2020, at the New York Film Festival, Petzold revealed he’d caught COVID, experienced “X-rated” fever dreams, and was writing a “gay love story” called The Red Sky. What changed over summer? The director clarifies a few things to me. Firstly, the film is now called The Happy Ones, to avoid comparisons with Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky and The Red River. Secondly, The Happy Ones will not visualise any sex.

“In my movie Die innere Sicherheit, there’s this daughter hearing her parents have sex (upstairs). I had to create the sounds with the actors playing the parents. They’re not naked, there’s no camera. They said they’ve never felt so (embarrassed). They had a microphone and had to make breathing sounds. They had sex in their minds when making this acoustic version.

“For The Happy Ones, sometimes you see someone naked, but there’s no sex scene… What you have is people who have sex, and you hear it the whole time through. They have sex in the neighbouring room. This, I think, makes the actors have more fear than being naked. We’ve had so many sex scenes in the last 20 years and it’s always the same. The woman is on the body of the man, you see the fingers on the bed – it’s so boring!”

As for the gay elements, Petzold explains, “There’s homosexual love, there’s heterosexual love. It’s both there. When I see the world of my children, when they’re in clubs in Berlin, they’re surrounded by a sexuality that’s not like the sexuality of the 50s when you know that you’re gay or not gay. They don’t know, and it’s not a problem for them.”

While Undine was meant to kickstart a trilogy about fairy tales, the director’s instead exploring elements – first water, now fire. “(The Happy Ones) is in the forest, it’s on the beach. You have the big country surrounding it, with a great sky, with planes that want to destroy the fire with water. And on the other side, you have five young people who are like in a Douglas Sirk melodrama… The forests are burning, and their desire is burning.

“Then after, I will do a story (about earth) by Georges Simenon… the next one is to do with planes and the air and the sky.”

The Happy Ones will again star Beer, thus continuing Petzold’s trend of casting the same lead actor several films in a row. Would the director consider doing his own version of Avengers: Endgame, but with the repeat performers of his filmography? “I think it’s a really good idea. I’m thinking about it. I always think I have an ensemble. I made six films with Nina. Six films with Barbara Aueur… I have the idea to assemble all these actors like Nina and Paula together in one movie (about planes).” He hints that Hoss’s character will be “very, very mean”.

As we wrap up, Petzold says the rest of the day will be devoted to fighting his fever. Tomorrow, he’ll return to writing his Georges Simenon movie, which he’ll make next year. While The Happy Ones is ready to go – the script is finished, the cast is finalised – that doesn’t shoot until April 2022. “I’ll wait for when the pandemic is gone. (The Happy Ones) is about love and desire and sexuality. I can’t do it with masks on faces. So I’ll work like John Ford and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – next year, two movies!”

Undine can be streamed now at Curzon Home Cinema