Afire is a curious change of pace for German filmmaker Christian Petzold, and it’s a shift that works for the most part. It’s more contemporary, introspective, and perhaps even a tad self-critical when compared to almost all of Petzold’s more recent works. (Even his most recent film prior to this, Undine, was still rooted in history and fairy tales, despite a more modern setting.) It’s not one of Petzold’s best when placed against the likes of instant classics of international cinema like Transit and Phoenix, but Afire and its minor faults remains transfixing and thoughtful. Few filmmakers these days can depict complicated personal relationships as richly as Petzold, and Afire proves in spite of some narrative clunkiness that the writer-director’s skills remain almost peerless.
Friends Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel) have made their way from Berlin to the seaside family cottage of the latter for a working retreat. While Felix – a photographer working on a student project – sees the trip as equal parts business and pleasure, the more taciturn and morose Leon demands total silence so he can concentrate on finishing his book before his publisher (Matthias Brandt) arrives later in the week. Leon is aghast to learn that they won’t be staying at the cottage alone, as it has been rented out to the free spirited Nadja (Petzold regular Paula Beer), a seasonal employee who’s the niece of one of Felix’s mother’s co-workers. At night, Leon struggles to sleep over the sounds of Nadja having loud sex with her hot lifeguard paramour (Enno Trebs), and during the day he’s constantly trying to avoid partaking in anything that remotely resembles fun or relaxation. Leon’s “work won’t allow it,” as he constantly reminds everyone around him, but his mask of professional pretension starts to slip the more he gets to know Nadja. But as the rocky relationships at play start to pan out, encroaching forest fires could prove to be more dangerous.
Afire is constructed around Leon’s selfish struggles, and while Petzold has built films around equally flawed characters, few feel like they’re cutting as close to the bone as this. Exceptionally portrayed with low key disdain for everyone and everything around him by Schubert, Leon is a snarky, supercilious hack-in-the-making. He’s a self-styled, capital A-Artiste who has closed himself off from the world by misguided choices that they believe will sharpen their writing skills and senses of perception. Leon gives off the air of a person who thinks they’ve figured everything out, and they are forcing themself to become an artist rather than letting inspiration come, go, and flow organically. He has confidence in himself, but not his work, or else he would be a lot more easy going. Everything he does is reactionary because he refuses to let experience get in the way of his self-perceived genius, deigning to notice that being challenged or moved will help his art instead of hindering it. He’s a tightly wound drag of a person prone to emotional bullying, with no capacity to simply roll with whatever small inconveniences life throws his way.
It’s easy to wonder just how much Petzold sees himself in Leon, but one has to infer a bit of soul searching on the filmmaker’s part. It’s a character and experience so lived in that viewers will immediately be able to identify precisely this type of person, even if they aren’t an artist. Petzold and Schubert strike a unique balance between cautious sympathy and scathing critique. Leon has a lot of drive, and there’s a distinct sense of his passion, but Nadja – the most authentic and open character, played with tremendous heart and welcome wit by Beer – is able to call his overall talent and viewpoint into question. Petzold and his frequent cinematographer Hans Fromm are always able to make Leon look like a pale skinned alien in contrast to the character’s soothing surroundings, with the character’s costuming (omnipresent black shirts) only serving to underline the fish out of water. The construction of a character so dense borders on self-loathing on the part of the filmmaker.
Or maybe Petzold just knows a lot of Leon’s in his life and has mounted Afire as a screed against such personalities. At times it’s hard to tell because the viewer learns more about the supporting characters and their life experiences than they do Leon. Everyone has a wealth of experiences, joys, and pains to pull from, except for Leon, and yet, something has to have caused his stodginess. One of the biggest drawbacks to Afire is that Leon’s contempt for frivolity comes across as aimless. It’s tough to theorize just what led Leon to this point in his life and what’s driving his art outside of arrogance. There’s also little explanation as to why someone as pleasant (although differently misguided) as Felix would be friends with Leon in the first place. Whether by accident or design, there’s an emptiness at the centre of Afire that’s interesting, but underdeveloped. There are hints, but it’s never enough.
This leads to problems during the film’s final twenty minutes, when Petzold ramps things up to feel a bit more urgent, leading to a resolution that feels curiously unearned. Afire stumbles because the most intriguing part of the story has been jettisoned from the narrative. While one doesn’t need to feel any sort of affinity for Leon by the film’s conclusion, the twists and kinks in Petzold’s plot (some of which come across as predictable the longer the story drags on) necessitate a grander revelation that this marks a turning point in this trajectory of a still relatively young person’s life. Petzold, who’s usually able to masterfully build to such pivots in other works, fumbles the chance to do something more meaningful here, and the result is a bit of a shrug.
Afire is a lesser work from Petzold, but there’s still a lot to admire within the details. It’s a work that comes across as purposefully unfinished and without compromise, and although those aspects could sometimes be detriments, Petzold is able to make the viewer contemplate why that is in a larger context. Most importantly of all, it’s a film that maintains a sense of humanity in spite of the leanings of a main character placed into a setting where the world is quite literally burning down around them. It’s a film that uniquely asks the viewer to ignore the perspective of the main character to discover what lies beyond their reach, and in that respect, Afire remains fascinating to watch.
Afire opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton, Cinema du Parc in Montreal, Vancity in Vancouver, Metro Cinema in Edmonton, and Sudbury Indie Cinema on Friday, July 14, 2023. It opens at Cinema Moderne in Montreal, on July 21, at ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa on July 25, Princess Cinemas in Waterloo on August 5, and at Screening Room in Kingston and Carbon Arc in Halifax on August 12.
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