by Alvin G. Burstein
Antedating contemporary concerns about extra-terrestrials, many cultures have some variant of fascination with sea-dwelling humanoids, and feature tales about interactions between them and earthlings. Often they focus on sexual allure and associated danger. Examples are the sirens that require Odysseus’ crew to bind him to a mast to keep him from succumbing, and there are the Scotch-Irish Selkies, seal folk that tempt Hibernian fishermen. In psychoanalytic terms, the sexual appeal of the exotic, noted as far back as Havlock Ellis’s writings on the psychology of sex, may have its roots in an incest taboo; be that the case or not, one cannot fail to be impressed by the trans-cultural ubiquity of mermaid tales in which desire and danger are linked.
It has been almost a quarter of a century since the movie Splash, a rom-com, introduced Tom Hanks to the public as fishmonger. As a child he had been rescued from being drowned by a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah, and years later, she returns to lure him into joining her in her maritime world. The film was popular, earning Oscars; it is one I have seen and enjoyed more than a few times.
In that context, it is unsurprising that I would want to see a new German/French drama by Christian Petzold, Undine. More, I decided on a double feature. I chose to view it along with Ondine, a 2009 Irish film. These are variant spellings of the same being: a female sea-creature that is attracted by and to male lovers, and poses a danger to them.
With very similar basic plots, the two films are very different in style and in emotional tone. The earlier, Irish film has a streak of humor that makes its male star, Colin Farrell, appealing as a recovering alcoholic fisherman, Syracuse, who pulls Ondine, played by Alicia Bachleda, out the water in his trawling net. She brings him astonishing good fortune in his hitherto marginal fishing efforts and supports his efforts to help his precocious young child deal with her serious kidney disease. All the characters, including a surprising tolerant priest, are appealing, but the selky magic is abruptly dispelled in its ending.
Undine has little humorous relief. Played by Paula Beer, we meet Undine outside the museum where she works as a docent. She is at a café, as her lover, Johannes, played by Jacob Matschenz, is letting her know that he wants to end their relationship. She warns him that if that happens, she will have to kill him. She must leave the meeting to begin her lecture about the reconstruction of post-war Berlin, but she warns him to stay at the café to await her return. She returns to find him gone. While searching for him she meets a man, a deep sea technician, Christoph, played by Franz Rogowski, who attended her talk. He wants to strike up a relationship with her. She is not interested, but, in a murkily surreal series of events, they manage to destroy a large aquarium containing, along with fish, a deep sea diver figurine. Undine is injured by a shard of the aquarium glass, and Christoph gives her first aid.
Undine and Chistoph become lovers, and she accompanies him in some of his undersea adventures. They include encounters with a nightmarishly huge catfish. Their relationship deepens, but a catastrophic underwater accident leaves Christoph in a coma which is said to be irreversible. A distraught Undine, whom Christoph has confronted about her lingering interest in her former lover, is driven to carry out her threat to kill Johannes, and to end her earthly life.
Eventually, Christoph recovers, and after fruitless efforts to find Undine, begins a new life. The tragedy takes another turn when Johannes tries again to make contact with Undine.
A dark, stormy and unsettling tale, a striking counterpoint to the wit and romance of Ondine.