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Afire Is a Beguiling Portrait of Anxiety and Desire

Photo: courtesy Sideshow and Janus Films.

Christian Petzold’s Berlinale Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize-winning Afire, debuting in North America this week, is every bit as beguiling as the two main subjects that vex its protagonist, a self-absorbed writer distracted by the Baltic Seaside and a mysterious young woman. By turns caustic and touching, charming and insightful, laconic and haunting, Afire makes for an astute, insightful examination of its lead character’s anxieties escalating as work worries and a natural disaster converge.

To describe the plot of Afire probably does this complex film some injustice, for it’s far more than the sum of its events. But at least a little exposition is necessary. Writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) and his photographer friend Felix (Langston Uibel) have arranged for a working holiday at Felix’s family’s holiday home near the Baltic Sea, where Leon will finish his second book and Felix his portfolio. Things go awry from the start, beginning with Felix’s car breaking down on the isolated road to the cabin, kicking Leon’s palpable anxiety—a stark contrast with Felix’s easygoing demeanor.

A woman and three young men enjoy an outdoor meal.
From Left: Paula Beer, Enno Trebs, Langston Uibel, and Thomas Schubert in AFIRE. Photo: courtesy Sideshow and Janus Films.

More troubling to Leon is the evidence of another guest when they arrive. Nadja (Paula Beer of Undine), introduces herself as a family friend, which is all well and good with the affable Felix, even when the noise from her sex romps keep the two friends awake at night in the guest room. Perturbed and distracted by her presence, Leon tends to spend the time he should be writing spying on Nadja and interrogating her lifeguard/lover. No matter the situation, it seems, Leon is there with the wrong remark: unlike the others, he can’t engage the easy repartee or casual flirtations of youth, nor can he even  enjoy a swim in the ocean. He’s obsessed with Nadja and the novel he can’t seem to complete.

As the days pass, however, Leon finds himself and Nadja drawing a bit closer. She’s not, as he had presumed, just a flighty sex-happy seasonal worker, but an aspiring literary scholar, an intellect at least equal to his own. Leon even trusts her to read his work in progress, but he’s incapable of digesting criticism. To make matters more complex, lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) have begun their own affair, and Leon’s publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) arrives for a fateful meeting.

A man carrying a backpack converses with a woman on bike in Afire.
Thomas Schubert and Paula Beer in AFIRE. Photo: courtesy Sideshow and Janus Films.:

All of these complications play out, as the film’s title implies, as a rapidly spreading forest fire threatens the region. At first its dangers seem distant, but as the plot progresses the fire approaches and intensifies. With wildfires plaguing North America and Europe all summer, Petzold’s COVID-era script seems almost prescient in its apocalyptic visions of a world succumbing to a fiery inferno certain to claim at least some of the principals.

What does it mean to create art in the face of an uncertain future? Leon, in his self-absorption, does not know, but a clever metatextual twist in the film’s final act suggests he might learn, and it also suggests there is far more to Petzold’s film than a simple holiday-set tangle of personalities. Inspired by the films of Eric Rohmer and the stories of Anton Chekhov, Petzold’s script crackles with energy and assurance, even when you’re never certain which direction it will take: from canny comedy to slick thriller to metatextual arthouse, Afire is a film that will keep you guessing.

None of that might matter were it not for the film’s delightful performances. London-born, Berlin-based Langston Uibel charms as the easygoing Felix, a perfect foil to uptight Leon. As Leon, Thomas Schubert’s outward calm belies a bundle of insecurities, a “promising” writer somewhere on the spectrum whose social—or, rather, anti-social—behaviors compromise his relationships. Beer is absolutely luminescent as Nadja, sparkling her way through her role with a wry smile, a calm empathy, and a keen intellect.

a A young woman in a red dress stares at flakes of ash falling from the sky in Afire
Paula Beer as Nadja in Afire. Photo: courtesy Sideshow and Janus Films.

Those smart performances, coupled with Petzold’s longtime collaborator Hans Fromm’s rich cinematography, make Afire a visceral, even audacious viewing experience. Fromm frames Leon in doorways, often apart from others, hemmed in by his own anxieties, in a conceit worthy of a Sirk or Fassbinder, while shooting the encroaching fires and their ash-storms with a terrifying awe. Even a moment in the morgue makes for an image of scalding beauty to be seared into your brain long after the film concludes.

Part thriller, part farce, part love story, part arthouse experiment, Afire is even greater than the sum of its excellent parts, a distinct, perhaps even idiosyncratic film, but one sure to delight, enthrall, and provoke its viewers. Its clever script, canny performances, and superb cinematography make it a must see for any fan of world cinema.

Directed and written by Christian Petzold, starring Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt, Afire opens in Chicago July 28th at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with a national rollout to follow. 103 minutes, in German, with English subtitles.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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