Books & the Arts / August 29, 2023

Christian Petzold’s Afire Is the Summer’s Most Beguiling Film

Christian Petzold’s “Afire” Is the Summer’s Most Beguiling Film

The German director’s latest is a sly comedy about writer’s block, a bad vacation, and the catastrophe of a warming world.

Phoebe Chen
A scene from Afire. (Coutesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

Christian Petzold’s Afire begins with a pop song and a premonition: Mellow synths cue the start of a halcyon summer as two men drive toward a house by the Baltic Sea. But the scene abruptly darkens with portent when the car misfires, leaving them stranded on a woodland road far from their destination. One heads off to find a shortcut through the woods, while the other—our jumpy protagonist, Leon (Thomas Schubert)—waits alone in the forest like the lost child in a Bavarian folk tale, forced to the edge of their known world. This is the first of Afire’s sly but frequent dips into the arcane, a mood as integral to the film as the obvious levity it draws from Éric Rohmer’s sunlit parables and the bildungsroman trope of a formative summer (though Leon is no jaunty naïf but a crank at work on his second novel). Petzold’s cinema has long fashioned its distinctive cadence from the reworked genre codes of historical thrillers and melodrama, centering characters whose lives have been arrested by political (and, recently, mythic) circumstances. With Afire, he takes us to the very genre of thresholds—the dark forest; the life-altering summer—and leaves us there, with Leon, to make sense of catastrophe.

Like so many films in which the idle follies of a seasonal getaway become kindling for a chamber drama, Afire keeps its small cast in the close orbit of their holiday home, which is owned by the mother of Felix (Langston Uibel), Leon’s wealthier and more affable friend. Their sylvan oasis is all whitewashed walls in a storybook clearing, but when Felix unlocks the door, they find a house strewn with signs of someone else’s vacation. A phone call confirms that these are the traces of an unexpected third occupant, Nadja (Paula Beer), the daughter of a family friend who has claimed one of the only two bedrooms. Felix adapts quickly, delighted by lasagna leftovers on the uncleared table, but Leon never shakes off this initial sense of intrusion. He had thought this trip might double as an artist’s residency for the two of them: Felix needs to complete his portfolio for an art school application, while Leon, awaiting the arrival of his publisher, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), has a few days to polish up his draft before their edit.

Nadja does not appear until the next morning, when a stunned Leon spies her hanging laundry in a scarlet sundress, his furtive stare broadcasting an enchantment he’ll spend the rest of the week masking with disdain. Soon, they take in a blond and bronzed lifeguard, Devid (Enno Strebs), as their fourth houseguest, first glimpsed in the nude one night leaving Nadja’s room post-romp. Compared to the photogenic trio in their shorts and sundresses, Leon is comically incongruous in his uniform of gray button-ups and black jeans, with Schubert’s physicality announcing his perpetual unease. Like any sullen observer who refuses (and secretly envies) the social graces of others, Leon consoles himself by construing their charisma as proof of their superficiality; erasing someone’s inner life is one way to manage the vexing depths of human mystery.

For an artist who has refused the temptations of autobiographical insertion, Afire is unusually contiguous with Petzold’s own life, with Leon’s risible draft of a second novel (titled Club Sandwich) an unplanned reflection of his maker’s own second film, Cuba Libre (1996), which the director has openly dismissed as derivative and pretentious. Unlike Petzold’s usual protagonists, fleeing Stasi surveillance in Barbara (2012) or facing postwar ruin in Phoenix (2014), Leon is under persecution by nothing but his own vanity. He deflects invitations to swim or dine by dutifully insisting on his need to work, though as anyone who has brought a bad draft on vacation knows, he ends up doing nothing but moping. Leon stalks the empty house and chain-smokes beneath the pergola, his days growing stale not with ennui but with the deadening fog of work’s failure. He knows, too, the guilt of being caught unbusy by those whose leisurely company you’ve refused: Whenever the jovial crew returns to the house, he sprints back to his laptop and hurries into a pose of concentration. But he’s far from the only one with obligations—Felix has his own deadline, of course, and Devid and Nadja work seasonal jobs near the beach. The few times Leon is lassoed into socializing, he continues to radiate unrelenting gloom.

It’s curious that Petzold, a filmmaker known for his interest in historical crises and their spectral aftermaths, should pick a sultry, inert holiday as his new setting. After the period veracity of Barbara and Phoenix, his adaptation of Transit (2018) reworked the occupied Marseille of 1944 into a timeless, bureaucratic purgatory, turning Anna Seghers’s World War II–era novel into a critique of a contemporary crisis: the border and its violent discontents. Petzold’s wariness of German cinema’s escapist “retreat” into period trappings is already clear in Transit’s deliberate anachronism, but it was his next feature, Undine (2020), that crystallized the shift in the director’s articulation of history. If the phantoms long associated with his filmography have been allegories for the past’s uncanny persistence, Undine’s human-adjacent protagonist—the eponymous water nymph of 19th-century German legend—introduced a kind of spatial disorientation to Petzold’s filmmaking. Creatures of myth prompt us to look for worlds beyond the ones we know, to see what fears and desires have taken shape and endured in fables and other vessels of belief.

Despite its departures in style and tone, Afire, like Undine, is interested in history’s ruptures and continuities as they play out in the physical environment. Although summer’s balmy lassitude mutes the titular fire’s sense of urgency, and though the flames are mostly offscreen, disaster tugs at the film from the start. Early on, the muffled percussion of a far-off helicopter sneaks into routine birdsong, and soon the warnings crescendo. A supermarket cashier mentions the encroaching wildfires; megaphones broadcast emergency warnings by the boardwalk. Petzold keeps the catastrophe at a distance by gluing us to Leon’s myopic perspective, so mired in his inadequacies that reality starts and ends with his shame. Even when the skies begin to rain ash and blaring alarms are audible at the house, he remains oblivious, drawing Nadja into a confrontation about her intellect and status: He has just learned that this ice cream seller also happens to be a PhD candidate in comparative literature, the depth of her perspicacity bursting forth in her spontaneous recitation of a 19th-century love poem at dinner that night. It hits Leon like a grand betrayal, though it was hardly a secret—he just never asked.

At times, even the forest itself seems unreal, never mind the fire. Cinematographer Hans Fromm shot the film’s many nocturnal scenes during the day, modifying the footage with a deep, flat indigo that plunges the frame into an impossible blue, as if the images were locked in a tinted daguerreotype. Even Afire’s very title reads as a forceful reminder of the conflagration to come, though the future tense is redundant—it might be miles away from our central characters, but the forest is already in flames.

It’s nighttime when we first really see the blaze, when Nadja calls Leon up to the roof with the rest of them. At last, a brief but powerful spectacle worthy of a disaster movie ensues: A helicopter barrels into the distance, where an orange inferno has seized the tree-lined horizon. Afire might be Petzold’s response to the climate crisis, but it does so with neither ethical rebuke nor a call to action, instead grappling with something more ambient, beyond the obvious tragedies of ecological destruction. It’s not just the trees that burn but the wilderness too, the Black Forest and the enchanted glen. We lose those terrestrial moods passed down in fables when the woods go up in flames.

When the fire finally comes, the film shifts into a new mode: staggering devastation. If Afire feels discordant, it’s because, at least in the first half, there are so many false leads—what kind of story could happen in a house like this, with its easy domesticity and half-empty wine glasses, windows flung open to the teeming green? I did wonder if these languorous dinners only prefaced more interpersonal theatrics, if the friction of those covert looks and misread glances would amount to a climax no more incendiary than an altercation between people who barely knew each other. But Afire plays with that feeling of disjuncture before catastrophe alters what seemed at first like a listless summer into a week freighted with loss. This is a Petzold film, after all, which means our subject is not just cataclysm but also the forms of its representation.

Such is Afire’s closing sleight of hand: Toward the end, a sudden voice-over shifts the film into reflexive metafiction. Someone seems to be reading aloud, their narration set against shots of locations that we know from earlier in the film, but in states we have never seen—the dead forest after the fire, black stumps in the ashen morning like tombstones; the Baltic Sea at night, aglow with luminous plankton as if its waters hid the northern lights. Soon, we realize that the voice is reading out the closing passages of Leon’s revised second novel, the film’s prior events now rendered into literature. The gambit never feels reductive, and the ending, instead of suggesting containment, retains a sense of life’s touching incoherence.

Phoebe Chen

Phoebe Chen is a writer and PhD candidate living in New York.

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