September 9, 2021
If there ever was a film in need of interpretation, this story about a modern-day incarnation of the myth of water nymph Undine, who comes to earth for love, through the life of an urban historian who tells the architectural story of Berlin, for the guests of the city administration, this is the one. But are there other stories behind this improbable story?
Undine. A German film of 2020-2021 by Christian Petzold, a German-French production, presented at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Berlinade film festival of 2020.
The film has received positive reviews. Because the film is also somewhat mysterious, there have been invitations to look more closely at its meanings. This is suggested, for example, by Nathaniel Bell in the L.A. Weekly, who comments “its meanings remain elusive”. Julia Swift, in My Champlain Valley, adds that “(its) layers of meaning unfold somewhat subtly”.
The Move Shrink did not need any more to be interested in this film.
Ann Wibeau is an urban historian, who presents conferences for the municipal government of Berlin, to entertain foreign and local delegates. During those presentations, she often refers to the fact that the unification of East and West Berlin posed some challenges, as the two political traditions could sometimes see the city through different cultural lenses.
Little by little, we learn about Ann’s private life.
At the film’s outset, she is sitting in a local café with her lover, Johannes, who is already engaged in another relationship, and Johannes tells Ann that their relationship (Johannes and Ann’s) is over. Ann refuses this possibility, and true to the Undine myth, she announces that she will have to kill him so that she may herself survive. She will attend to that later in the film.
In the meantime, Christoph, an underwater engineer, who was present at her latest conference, tells her of his interest in her at the local café. During that conversation, a giant aquarium in the café accidentally falls on them. When they recover, on the ground, the aquarium destroyed, they smile towards each other and become close. They soon become lovers.
A little later, Christoph saves Ann in the lake where he currently operates as an underwater engineer, when she seems to disappear, riding on the back of a giant catfish.
At different times during the film, we can hear some lyrics of the popular song “Staying alive”, which seems appropriate for a story of someone whose survival on this earth is so uncertain.
There then is an episode where the couple encounters Johannes, the former lover, in a chance and brief meeting on the street. Christoph, believing there is more to this innocent event, becomes jealous. Soon after, he is seriously injured in an underwater industrial incident and is believed to be dead.
Recovering from the accident, Christoph returns to Ann’s apartment, only to find an immigrant family, not speaking German but only English, in her place, and the family tells him that they have been living there for several months, which appears impossible since Ann was there during those periods. He is left wondering if his meeting with Undine was all a dream?
Christoph then returns to his former partner, Monika, that he had left for his brief liaison with Ann.
Meanwhile, Undine, who has now lost both her lovers, visits the first one, Johannes, at his home, and sinks him to the bottom of his private pool, killing him presumably to survive herself, at least according to the Undine myth.
Ann Wibeau then returns to the lake she dived in with Cristoph, to disappear underwater, returning to her previous life as a mermaid.
THE MOVIE SHRINK’S ANALYSIS
Is this story, about a mermaid attempting to live outside her natural environment, who survives only if her partner continues to love her, a metaphor about some other story, or some other stories?
Or is this film an exercise in style, that should be looked at mainly as a stylistic and aesthetic experience?
The Movie Shrink believes the story indeed alludes to other stories.
It is of course first the story of Ann, a siren who can live outside water only if she continues to be loved by her partner, and dies if she is not.
There is, possibly, a second story, about the reunification of the two Berlins, the Eastern one and the Western one, and the inevitable challenges in reuniting two cultures which had two different aesthetics and urban planning, somewhat related to their different political experiences. These differences seem to endure somewhat today, but presumably less so.
But is there still something else? Is there more?
The Movie Shrink believes so, although these additional elements are by no means obvious.
The fact that Christoph finds an immigrant family, quite recently arrived in Berlin, in Ann’s apartment, which presumably had been there when Ann was there herself, an impossibility, tells us there may be a parallel between Ann’s story and the immigrant family’s story.
But how to make sense of this, what does it suggest?
It suggests that contemporary Germany has experienced different integration challenges, first with the integration of East and West Germany, and now with the integration of newcomers in the more recent periods of immigration.
This interpretation is suspect, as it could be portrayed as a politically incorrect and indirect comment of the challenges of recent immigration. Of course, The Movie Shrink could be himself suspect, and there could be a temptation to kill the messenger, hopefully only symbolically!
But the interpretation need not be politically incorrect, since the example of the challenges of East and West Germany, quite successful, at least as seen from the outside, could lead us to believe that success is also possible with the current integration challenges, involving more recent immigration.
There is also another possible layer, involving contrasts and challenges of integration that go beyond the challenges of immigration. Indeed, it is possible that, in our contemporary global society, we are living in different cultural universes, beyond immigration, buoyed by globalization and the ever-present media, which marks and contrasts our different perspectives. The coexistence of different cultural modes was an important element of the American film of a few years ago, “The Dead Don’t Die”, and it did not deal with immigration at all, but still dealt with the challenges of integrating different cultures.
And so there would indeed be four layers to this film. A first layer about the myth of Undine, through the life of Ann Wibeau. A second layer, about the integration of East and West Berlin. A third one about the challenges of integrating current immigration. And one last layer, reflecting the fact we are all living in different cultural universes, even among the local traditional population, buoyed by all kinds of contrasts, yet living in the same physical environment.
A WIDER PERSPECTIVE
This film offers us an opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about film interpretation.
First, it may show that a pertinent interpretation need not be obvious, but It may be one that advances our understanding, especially when it does explain some details that other understandings do not, such as the unexplained presence of the immigrant family in the apartment of the heroine, at a time she was supposed to be there herself.
Another question is the possible interpretation that the director of the film offers himself. In the more conceptual part of The Movie Shrink’s website, this question is noted and it is concluded that, from a hermeneutic point of view, the analyst’s interpretation is not tied to the author’s or the creator’s view. Indeed, there is a certain amount of unconsciousness in all artistic creation, and the creator is not necessarily in command of the meaning and implications of his own work. The creator could very well protest the interpretation given to his film, for example, but this protest would not be decisive, from a hermeneutic point of view. It is the film that is of real interest, not the artist.
The last question is the possibility that an interpretation is politically sensitive or even, for some, politically incorrect. There is the risk, here, as noted elsewhere, to want to kill the messenger, symbolically of course!
But “it is what it is”. There is the possibility that a film makes us feel uncomfortable, but The Movie Shrink should not shy away from this eventuality. After all, some social realities are alluded to indirectly, precisely because they may be unwelcome or uncomfortable.
What may be surprising to some is that there is not a great deal of politically incorrect elements in contemporary films, at least not in the films usually seen and interpreted by The Movie Shrink.