(Check out Matt Delman’s movie review of Afire, Christian Petzold’s latest film which hits theaters in New York on July 14 before a rollout nationwide. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Prolific director Christian Petzold’s unclassifiable new film Afire is his third collaboration with muse Paula Beer, who lights up the screen in a role destined for cinematic history. Her character exudes effortless charm in a mysterious way, and never looks down on the sad behavior of our troubled protagonist Leon (Thomas Schubert) who is hilariously off-putting. Petzold knows Nadja (Beer) is the star of the film, and he introduces her as such. First we see her clothes strewn about her bedroom. Later we hear her through the wall, having sex in the room next door. Petzold gives Leon (and the viewer) slight glimpses of her leaving on a bicycle or behind strung sheets on a laundry line, before finally we meet her in the kitchen window, framed above Leon like royalty addressing her servant. This type of introduction is reserved for only the most consequential of characters. The excellent cast is rounded out by Enno Trebs as a sexy lifeguard and Langston Uibel as Leon’s friend Felix, whose family owns the house they’ve gathered at. They make a foursome that is surprisingly fluid. What elevates Afire to greatness is the third act, which sees a breezy seaside dramedy turn into something else altogether. The threat of wildfires resonates more today than ever before, and although the audience should foresee a tragic ending coming, the twist is nevertheless a surprise gut punch that will leave you gasping for air.
A car breaking down in the middle of a forest usually signals the start of a horror film, and Petzold plays with those tropes to give his film an underlying tone of unease. Felix runs ahead to look for his family house, and Leon is left alone with the suitcases. Petzold torments him with echoing sounds of a wild boar whine. He plants the boar early so when it finally shows up in the third act, it’s a delightfully horrific surprise.
Once they make it to the house, Felix and Leon have different ideas about the days’ itinerary. When Leon is invited to go for a swim at the beach, he responds, “My work won’t allow it.” What’s fascinating is not how much Leon sucks, but how accommodating the other three are to Leon’s wet-blanket tendencies. They do eventually call him out on his bullshit, and it’s fun to see Leon squirm when Nadja inquisitively repeats his novel’s title back to him, “Club Sandwich?”
There is much to interrogate here, from the literary to the environmental to the existential. But much like most of Eric Rohmer’s filmography–who Petzold admits was a big influence–Afire is about the interpersonal. In the summertimes of cinema, we crave the ephemeral nature of casual relationships, where a beachside villa is a fantasy escape from the problems of the real world. That’s why it’s so funny that Leon’s problems follow him there, and stand in his way of having a good time like the others. Petzold seems to be toying with the audience when he then makes Leon the beneficiary of the other characters’ tragedy. There’s a dark sense of humor at work that overcomes any notion of an ‘unlikable protagonist’. Petzold’s camerawork also impresses–the cinematography is by frequent collaborator Hans Fromm–and there’s a beautiful song called In My Mind by The Wallners that bookends the film perfectly.
The beauty of the location and the people in it (especially Paula Beer, but the guys are cute too) lulls the viewer into a false sense of security, so that one may forget the warning in the title of the movie. We see the flames on the horizon, but somehow it still feels far away. When ash finally falls from the sky like heavy snowflakes, in one of the most gorgeous shots of the film, only then do we realize the immediate danger these characters are in. Fate has brought them together and mother nature will rip them apart.
– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)
The Match Factory; Christian Petzold; Afire movie review