Synopsis: A seaside vacation takes an unexpected turn when Leon and Felix arrive at Felix’s family’s holiday home to discover Nadja, a mysterious woman, already there. As an ever-encroaching forest fire threatens their well-being, relationships are tested, and romances are kindled.
Stars: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt
Director: Christian Petzold
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I’ve never been the kind of person that sneaks into a party late and tries to remain unnoticed, hoping the host hasn’t seen me doing a belly crawl in the side door and then pretending I’ve been there the whole time. What’s the point? When you’re late, kick the door in, announce your presence, thank the person who drove you there, and then enjoy the night. It’s the same way with discovering a cult movie, beloved actor, or director working for years in the business you may have only now found out about. Pretending you’ve been on the bandwagon won’t do you any favors, so live in the moment and enjoy catching up with all the fans that were once where you were. I’ve found they’ll enjoy retaking the journey with you.
I’ll be taking my journey soon with the works of director Christian Petzold. While I’ve seen a few of the German writer/director’s ten feature films, significant gaps must be filled, especially after enjoying his latest work Afire. Winning the Silver Bear (1st runner-up) at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival this past February, Petzold’s film is part of a planned continuing series based on the elements and following 2020’s water-inspired Undine. Set against the backdrop of an approaching forest fire, which also serves as the film’s emotional metaphor, Petzold’s film is the rare find that can engage and surprise with equal measure.
A summer at a German country home near the sea sounds like the perfect space for friends Felix (Langston Uibel, Unorthodox) and Leon (Thomas Schubert, Fog in August) to relax and focus on their work. Photographer Felix has a portfolio to assemble, and he needs inspiration to begin. However, he is easily distracted by the slightest occurrence, and the process is slow. Frustrated writer Leon knows his second book needs revision and hopes the quiet will allow him to turn things around before his editor (Matthias Brandt, Transit) arrives and throws down the hammer.
Consumed with his assured failure but obsessed with his drive for success, Leon wants to write and rest. Yet there’s a problem. The house belongs to Felix’s family, and because they’ve arrived unannounced, it had already been rented out to a young woman, Nadja (Paula Beer, Never Look Away), working nearby for the summer. Finding a way to make it work, Nadja and the two men share the home, and it appears Nadja and Felix are happy with the arrangement. Leon, however, continues to find ways to be dissatisfied and distant from the friendly and engaging female housemate. When Nadja’s sometime lover David (Enno Trebs, The White Ribbon) joins them, the foursome creates a strange dynamic that will change the course of the remaining summer days.
At times idyllic, in other moments combative, Leon’s pent-up emotions can set off sparks between the two, yet the movie is never that interested in sexuality. The movie is very much about attraction (gay and straight), but it’s not a film about four people shacked up in a house for the summer. In Afire, Petzold is exploring what it’s like to be out of your element and discovering parts of yourself through the eyes of another. The view isn’t always what you want it to be, but it’s often more truthful than what you have been telling yourself. It’s these emotionally resonant passages that make the film such a standout.
The performances from the entire cast also push Afire into high-mark territory. Schubert and Beer are dynamite, with Schubert playing up the gauche snob when he thinks he has the upper hand, only to be taken down a peg by Beer in a series of surprising twists. That Beer can deliver these without seeming mean-spirited is a credit to the actor and the writing. Uibel and Trebs don’t always factor in fully, especially in the second half when the focus turns more to Leon and Nadja, but when it does get back to them in a pivotal way, they’ve earned their crucial moment.
Backed by a dreamy soundtrack (the hypnotic “in my mind” by Wallners factors into the opening and closing credits) and buy-me-a-plane-ticket-and-book-the-VRBO-now cinematography from Hans Fromm, Afire (originally titled Roter Himmel/Red Sky) ends where you might least expect it. I certainly didn’t see the film rounding certain corners or Petzold taking the path toward his finale, and for that, I am grateful. Too many films now have endings you could write down before the credits have finished, so it’s pleasing to get to the halfway mark and have no idea what might happen. Afire contains many discoveries for our characters and a significant one for this critic. Don’t miss it – let’s go on this Petzold voyage together!