Movie Review: Tensions boil over in Christian Petzold’s haunting summer drama ‘Afire’

Fire is in the air this summer, literally, and at the movies. Though the flames in German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s “Afire” aren’t of the nuclear variety, the smoke from his tension-filled chamber piece about a few young adults at a vacation house near the Baltic Sea certainly gets in your eyes.

This is a film about youth, climate change, ego, artistry and, well, being a human in the world. So naturally the main protagonist is an arrogant, off-putting writer aggrieved by everything and everyone around him as he tries to work on his latest novel in a would-be idyllic setting.

To be fairer to Leon (Thomas Schubert), there is a lot to be annoyed about from the start. His friend Felix’s (Langston Uibel) car breaks down on the way and they have to lug their suitcases quite a distance to get to the holiday home. When they finally arrive at the home, it’s a mess — plates, food, wine glasses, clutter and the distinct sense that someone else is staying there. Felix’s mom forgot to tell them she’d let someone else have the place and now these two pals are going to have to share a room on top of everything. The mystery guest, Nadja (Paula Beer), who disappears during the day, can’t seem to clean up after herself and makes quite a bit of noise at night with her own guest. In other words, Leon is not sleeping or getting much writing done.

Empathy for Leon, however, wears thin pretty quickly. This is a man who is entirely consumed with himself, to the point where he can neither see nor empathize with anyone around him. Similarly he cannot enjoy himself or the world — he refuses to go for swims, gets annoyed at himself when he does venture to the beach and just falls asleep, he resents people for having jobs that aren’t intellectual and lets them know it, too. When Felix, a photographer, tells him about his idea for his portfolio, he callously dismisses it. Later, someone whose intellect he respects gushes about how brilliant Felix’s idea is, and Leon seethes more. And all as wildfires encroach upon the small town, threatening everything. The winds, they’re told, mean they’re safe.

The metaphor might not be subtle, but it’s surprisingly effective and haunting considering what’s to come. While Schubert is perfectly unlikable as the caustic writer, the real standout is Petzold regular Beer. Nadja is a luminous presence in a complex character who has depths that no one realizes. That’s what happens when you don’t ask, right?

Petzold said the film, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, was born out of actual fever dreams, as he suffered through a bout with COVID-19, and the films of Eric Rohmer, which he watched through it all. He realized the French, and even Americans, have a whole summer movie genre — these journeys of self-discovery, often on a beach — but that German cinema was lacking.

And perhaps this is a very German expression of a summer coming-of-age film — there are striped sweaters, a very photogenic Baltic Sea, romantic longing and dinners with too much wine and a hauntingly atmospheric song, “in my mind” by the Wallners, which sets a dreamy, Lynchian mood. There’s also guilt, grief and loss and a poignant reminder to look at the world around us before it’s gone.

“Afire,” a Janus Films release expanding in theaters Friday, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association. Running time: 88 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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