But Petzold doesn’t hammer the potential for political parable or allegory here — which is a little surprising, given the lessons on modern German history he offers up in pictures such as “Phoenix.” Instead, this fractured not-quite-fairy-tale parcels out provocative instances of magical realism on arguably larger themes.
After being ditched by her sniveling partner Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), Undine almost immediately retreats into the cafe, where she fixates on a small statue of a helmeted sea diver in a fish tank. The aquarium vibrates and soon explodes, knocking her to the floor with another man, Christoph (Franz Rogowski). They’re both drenched, and she’s a bit cut up by shards from the tank.
This peculiar meet-cute is handled straightforwardly (the movie’s clean, economical production design, by Merlin Ortner, grounds the picture in this respect), as are the story’s other fantastic elements — including an ethereal catfish and a diving outing during which Undine mysteriously sheds her wet suit, flippers and oxygen tank.
Undine’s new love — the kind, compassionate and knowing Christoph (he and Beer were also paired in Petzold’s prior film, “Transit”) — is himself a diver. Being near him makes Undine feel more at home, so to speak. But Christoph’s work, welding underwater turbines, is risky. Soon Undine is presented with a dilemma that forces her to confront a fate she had hoped her new happiness would help her avoid.
Petzold’s cinematic storytelling style is elegant but unfussy, perfectly complemented by Hans Fromm’s cinematography and by the sparely used music, which includes the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson’s dreamy interpretations of Bach and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” “Undine” is ultimately more enigmatic than most of Petzold’s work. It is also, like its title character, eerily beautiful. While it could well serve as a high-end date movie, it’s also something more.
Not rated. In German and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.