- Written and directed by Christian Petzold
- Starring Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer and Langston Uibel
- Classification N/A; 103 minutes
- Opens in select theatres July 14, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto
German filmmaker Christian Petzold has made a career trading on big ideas – cinematic dialogues with history and culture that are long and winding and heavy and masterful. Think of 2018′s Transit, which adapted Anna Segher’s Second World War-era novel Transit Visa to tell the story of French refugees escaping Paris following an invasion, albeit in Petzold’s film the time period was distinctly contemporary. Or take 2014′s Phoenix, which twisted notions of identity and morality before landing on perhaps one of the finest final shots in 21st-century cinema so far. A Petzold production has been synonymous with investment, commitment and absorption.
Which isn’t to say that the director’s latest, Afire, is feather-light. The film centres on questions of creativity, the energy and discipline required to channel it, and what happens when we let it spin us in the wrong directions. But there is a certain levity to the movie – a breeziness, albeit one controlled and considered – that forces the film to stand apart from the established conception of the Petzold canon. It is a vacation from a filmography, an experience that might feel richer only once you’re a few days removed from it.
Or maybe Afire simply feels like a detour from Petzold’s more favoured routes because it is about a vacation, or at least a retreat from the familiar. Opening on a rural back road near the Baltic Sea, the film finds sullen novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert) and photography student Felix (Langston Uibel) trying to reach the latter’s family cabin. The relationship between the two is initially vague – are they friends or, as an impromptu wrestling match hints at, something more? This thread hangs in the air until the pair arrive at their destination only to find that it’s already occupied by a guest double-booked by Felix’s mother.
Initially heard and not seen, Nadja (Paula Beer) is an alluring, mysterious, almost intimidating presence. Introduced with a kind of highly manufactured allure that Petzold typically reserves for his leading ladies (including Beer, who has now starred in three of the director’s films), Nadja doesn’t initially spell out what she’s doing here, preferring to just float from errand to meal to evening’s rest. Eventually, the trio form an unlikely household, which comes to include a handsome lifeguard named David (Enno Trebs) who may or may not be Nadja’s lover.
The environment is ripe for easy, countryside pleasure – a potent mix of sun and sex. Yet the retreat is threatened by two unwanted guests, of a sort. The first is Leon’s caustic self-absorption, large and overwhelming enough to be corporeal, with the writer so tormented by his latest novel that he thinks himself both above his companions and like the biggest failure in the world. The second is the threat of forest fires, which are gradually encroaching the surrounding countryside. Tensions flare, frustrations boil, and the heat, both metaphorical and literal, is dialled up when Leon’s literary editor arrives to go over his new draft.
With the exception of Felix, whose motives for putting up with Leon for so long remain curiously unexplored, Petzold’s characters arrive onscreen fully formed and layered, further fleshed out by the film’s small cast of dedicated performers. Beer is as compelling and beguiling as ever, though it’s Schubert who truly dials into his antihero. Leon has the fussiness and unbearable self-doubt of a storyteller who is as unsure of his own life as he is that of his fiction, and it’s fascinating to watch Schubert work through that frustration.
Ultimately, the film ends by confronting the promised tragedy of its title – perhaps too abruptly, for some audiences. But the dramedy of manners is as rich and rewarding an experience as any of Petzold’s more ambitious films. Afire arrives like a calm wind, and leaves with everything and everyone perfectly scorched.