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‘Afire’ (‘Roter Himmel’) Review: Christian Petzold Examines the Insecurities of the Male Artist in Nimble Chamber Piece



Leaving behind the fairy-tale enigma of his last film, UndineChristian Petzold returns in Afire to the unembellished realism more characteristic of his work, even when he has flirted with genre, from noir to melodrama to Hitchcockian thriller. The German auteur also departs from the densely populated cities that have mainly been his canvas, dropping his characters into the seemingly tranquil setting of a sleepy beach town on the Baltic Sea and a summer home in idyllic woodlands. But the skies are turning red as forest fires loom closer, ash is raining down and wildlife is fleeing.

The anxiety caused by natural disaster is echoed by the festering self-doubt of the central character, Leon (Thomas Schubert), who has escaped Berlin to work on the manuscript of his new novel, his spirits dampened by the tepid response of his publisher. He’s accompanied by Felix (Langston Uibel), whose family owns the house where they’ll be staying. But glitches in their plans start occurring immediately, when Felix’s car breaks down 12 kilometers from their destination.


The Bottom Line

Deceptive simplicity makes way for illuminating depths.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt
Director-screenwriter: Christian Petzold

1 hour 42 minutes

An acutely incisive character portraitist, Petzold wastes no time showing us how dissimilar these two friends are. Felix is ​​cheerfully mellow and adaptable, shrugging off the inconvenience as he loads most of their luggage on his back to head through the woods on foot. The more uptight Leon is clearly put out, carrying just a single duffel bag and complaining all the way.

The writer’s annoyance continues when they eventually get to the house and find they’ll be sharing it with a woman Felix’s mother forgot to mention. Felix takes it in stride, happily finishing off the lasagna left out by that other guest from the previous night’s dinner, but Leon gets even grumpier.

The two men don’t physically meet their surprise housemate, Nadja (Paula Beer), until two days later, but they hear her both nights, having noisy, vigorous sex in the next bedroom. Unable to sleep, Leon harumphs off outside to the gazebo and spritzes himself with bug spray, observing Nadja’s hunky lover slip away naked into the woods the next morning.

All this feels unusually light and lean for a Petzold movie, without his customary textural elements of political, economic, historical or social context — almost as if he’s detouring into Eric Rohmer territory, with a touch of Mia Hansen-Løve. But as reports of the fires become more worrying and the sound of water-bombing aircraft flying low over the area grows more frequent, a subtle hint of foreboding creeps in. At times, this recalls Alain Guiraudie’s erotic thriller Stranger by the Lakealthough the dread in Afire doesn’t play out in the way you might expect.

Tension at first seems rooted in Leon’s internal unease. He makes a big show of how important his work is, declining to take time away from his laptop and go swimming with Felix. (Nadja later teases him about his pompous manner of preceding recreation: “My work won’t allow it.”) Instead, he just procrastinates. By contrast, he’s dismissive of Felix’s idea for a photography portfolio he’s preparing for his art school application.

When Leon finally does go to the beach, he remains fully clothed and petulant the whole time, dressed entirely in black. He recognizes the lifeguard as Nadja’s bedroom playmate and is even more irritated when Felix saunters off to say hello, inviting the guy, Devid (Enno Trebs), to dinner. The guest’s conversation with Nadja and Felix compounds Leon’s sullenness until he starts aggressively questioning Devid, making Felix lose his temper and tell him to knock it off.

The writer-director is a wily observer of the evolving dynamics in the group, and the wonderful Beer — reteaming with Petzold after Transit and Undine — is amusingly direct in ways that jibe with easygoing Felix and Devid but seem to rankle Leon, even as he’s attracted to her.

Leon’s failure to make progress with his writing locks him in awkward discomfort. He seems to feel success is his right, but also perhaps to know the manuscript is second-rate, a view confirmed by its first reader’s blunt honesty, and then made clear when his publisher, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), arrives for a disastrous visit. . Leon’s resentment and petty jealousies intensify when a new romantic connection forms within the group, taking him by surprise and broadening the film’s insights into the mutability of love and desire.

Schubert is terrific as Leon, a potentially abrasive character that he makes soft and weak and vulnerable, even pathetic at times, but never contemptible. Given the flood of recent movies about messed-up men driven to extremes of toxic behavior, a character study of more moderate male dysfunction represents a welcome relief.

There’s both humor and melancholy in Leon’s frustration as he watches the people around him freely take turns being the center of attention while he’s stuck in self-exiled isolation on the outside. His attempts to move closer to Nadja, often tripping over himself, are quite touching until she tells him plainly that he sees nothing that’s going on around him, perhaps the ultimate condemnation for a writer. A startling development towards the end changes everything, and Petzold shifts course into tragedy with supple grace and sensitivity.

Made without non-diegetic music or camerawork that calls attention to itself — in line with the minimalist aesthetic of the Berlin School — this is a deceptively simple and straightforward but emotionally layered film, nicely acted by the tight ensemble. The modulation in the final stretch from extreme sorrow to regeneration and then a possibility of reconnection in the open ending is lovely.

For a director best known for his work with female protagonists (with Nina Hoss as his longtime muse before Beer), the male perspective here is a relative rarity. But it doesn’t come at the expense of Beer’s character; Nadja is fully self-possessed and in no way defined by the way men see her.

Petzold has called Afire (the original German title means Red Sky) the second part of a trilogy inspired by the elements that began with Undine, which updated an ancient myth involving a water nymph. While the element this time is obviously fire, the water motif continues in Felix’s concept for his photography portfolio. He sees poetry in the sea, whereas Leon, at that point still stymied, cannot.

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