Narrowing his focus info a more intimate and personal style of filmmaking, acclaimed filmmaker Christian Petzold has altered his Hitchcockian style and dystopian tone to a more meta-approach, but arguably has made a more accessible and less ambiguous film that stays true to Petzold’s own singular style while still feeling uneven to a degree. A thoughtful, compelling story of artistry, creativity, desire, and the vitality of muses, Afire is a sophisticated, engrossing drama that unravels with a lot of commentary on the writing process.
Petzold’s previous films, such as Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit, are often told during existential, critical periods in German history during World War II and the Cold War. His latest film isn’t as epic in scope, as it takes place in the modern day and concentrates solely on a four-handler with a few supporting characters that takes place during the summer of the Balkin region. The story here certainly holds the emotional candor, spirit, aesthetics, and tone of an Erik Rohmer summer-seasoned film, think A Summer’s Tale or Pauline at the Beach.
Courtesy Janus Films
During a hot summer with dangerous wildfires breaking out in neighboring regions, we follow author Leon (Thomas Schubert), who is traveling with his best friend Felix (Langston Uibel) as they travel to a summer retreat house so Leon can finish his sophomore novel, where his manuscript titled “Club Sandwich” is in the later stages of his draft. Even though the fires appear to be close and dangerous, Leon is too absorbed in his own world to get his next novel published. Leon and Felix end up sharing the house with a local ice cream stand worker named Nadja (Paula Beer from Undine), and her boyfriend David (Enno Trebs) is the local lifeguard at the local beach. Both Nadja and David keep Leon up in the late hours as they loudly have sex in the neighboring room. This leads to Leon putting on Felix’s bug spray and sleeping outside in hopes he doesn’t get eaten up by critters.
Leon ends up becoming very drawn to Nadja, and she becomes a mystical character in the film just as Paula Beer’s water nymph character, and as the friendship grows between Leon and Najda, the more intricate the narrative becomes. As the film progresses, it starts off a little rocky but eventually becomes engaging, and by its end, you can’t help but deny its resonance. This goes to show just how gifted a storyteller Petzold is with his characterizations. At first, Loen is very miserable and selfish, a thin-skinned egomaniac who can’t handle constructive criticism. Especially from Najda, who reads his manuscript, and she gives him an honest opinion that his writing is slight. Frustrated by this, Leon just dismisses her as a small-town idiot that just works at an ice cream parlor, but he quickly discovers that she has a brilliant way of speaking as she recites words from her own favorite poem where she puts her own soul into it. It’s quite a remarkable scene as Leon begins to realize that she does have the inclination to know what quality writing is. It also gives Leon the opportunity to grow both as an artist and becomes far less of an egocentric person.
Courtesy Janus Films
Out of many of Petzold’s recent films, Afire feels the least stylized, and it feels the most authentic of his work. As his previous films often experimented with film noir conventions and dense ideas, there is a more genuine execution here with his characters and their exchanges. Of course, Petzold’s film is filled with metaphors and motifs; the use of fire feels like it’s lifted straight out of something literary, and the dialogue feels sharper than his previous work. Especially the tension between Leon and Daniel during a dinner scene as Daniel discusses his experiences as a lifeguard and Leon patronizes him in a very snooty way that leads to Felix unleashing his bottled-up, hidden emotions. You feel the anxieties flow so naturally and authentically during the scene, which is in a way unorthodox for Petzold as most films are filled with artifice and his direction feels more understated this time around. The exchanges between Shubert and Beer really flow well, and the payoffs between the two reach a genuine poignancy.
Intricate, candid, and eventually satisfying, Afire on some levels echoes the Coen Brothers Barton Fink as it’s about an aspiring writer trying to make a break as tensions arise around his surroundings. Like Barton Fink, there are many abstractions, metaphors, and motifs that shape the themes of an aspiring artist in crisis. It’s also a film with a candid soul that has a lot to say about how certain human connections with the proper individuals can deliver that missing state of inspiration or motivation that is in us all.
Afire opens in limited theaters on Friday, July 14th