July 14th, 2023
STARRING: THOMAS SCHUBERT, PAULA BEER, LANGSTON UIBEL, ENNO TREBS
DIRECTED BY: CHRISTIAN PETZOLD
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The films of Christian Petzold have often sent my thoughts swirling through my mind. There is a deep humanity that rests in the center of his stories, often dissecting internal conflict about identity, the persecution of others, the pain behind lost love, and the choices a person makes. Afire– his most recent work– may be his most out-of-the-box. With a collection of characters at a summer home, each one of them is on separate wavelengths, yet they still fight to create a new friendship. It is one particular character, however, that comes with a painfully snarky attitude, a bleak cynicism that expands throughout his surroundings and creates an environment of discomfort. It is these dynamics that make Afire fascinating, seen through the eyes of an outsider, in a life-affirming story, that teaches us to see the goodness around us while we are here.
The trip for Leon (Tomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel) does not start well. Their car breaks down in the middle of the forest and they must walk to the cabin they are staying at. When they arrive, they discover that Nadja (Paula Beer) will also be there for the weekend, a mix-up of communication between Felix’s parents, but no matter, they will make the best of it. Or at least Felix will. Leon on the other hand is annoyed, wanting to find some peace and get some of his writing done, which he’s also not confident in these days. It makes the weekend extremely uncomfortable, where Leon is not able to relax, and yet Nadja still tries, they connect, all while a fire in the forest is slowly moving its way to spoil the entire weekend.
Unlike Petzold’s previous films, Undine, Transit, and Phoenix, Afire is working with a character that is not pleasant. Leon is clearly talented, he’s already written one book, but he’s also a massive downer. Nadja is a ball of life, a beautiful woman that intimidates Leon with her ability to be free of stress, and the connection she makes with Felix. What becomes evident is that they both have a different outlook on life and art. Leon’s inability to welcome criticism hinders his own ability to succeed and yet we’re not entirely sure about what in Leon’s past has made him this protective. It’s a process, but we slowly see Nadja’s attitude rub off on Leon, as he finally goes to the beach, but even then his adjustment may be too late.
What truly stuck out for me was Petzold’s brutally honest writing. The Leon character is not an enigma, but an authentic expression of a person, especially a frustrated writer. I greatly related to him as he became the stick in the mud and who can’t relate with being a miserable person when everyone around you has fun? It’s Petzold’s way of setting us up for what might be the most shattering but also romantic endings of 2023. I certainly wasn’t expecting it and it’s the kind of narrative that has you look back closer on everything that came before it.
Afire is another spectacular piece of cinema from Petzold. His narrative style and writing are one of the few spots of an artist that feels uniquely his own brand. His relationship with actors such as Franz Rogowski, Beer, and Schubert seems to morph and melt perfectly into the text. This is once again a story to contemplate, a slice of life that has growth, and an understanding of the human condition. Afire is about the build-up of regrets, a regret flame being lit, and the extinguishing of them to grow anew. It’s safe to say that I had a lot to think about once more.
AFIRE IS PLAYING AT THE GENE SISKEL FILM CENTER FROM FRIDAY JULY 28TH TO AUGUST 3RD.
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady