Targets of desire

Christian Petzold on An Affair To Remember, summers and Afire

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Christian Petzold’s Afire on the IFC Center marquee
Christian Petzold’s Afire on the IFC Center marquee Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second instalment with director/screenwriter Christian Petzold on Afire (Roter Himmel, the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize winner) starring Paula Beer, Thomas Schubert (winking at the audience like Ryan Gosling’s Ken in Greta Gerwig’s summer blockbuster Barbie), Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, and Matthias Brandt we touch upon Leo McCarey’s An Affair To Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in reference to Paula Beer in the wheelchair; pronouncing Walter Benjamin and Uwe Johnson; Margarethe von Trotta’s film series Jahrestage; Devid Striesow in Yella; new Baltic Sea tourism in the old east, and the goulash in and out of the bag.

Christian Petzold on Leo McCarey’s An Affair To Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr: “Oh, this is a fantastic movie! It all comes back now!”
Christian Petzold on Leo McCarey’s An Affair To Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr: “Oh, this is a fantastic movie! It all comes back now!” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Friends Felix (Langston Uibel) and Leon (Thomas Schubert) are on their way to a summer house in the woods near the Baltic Sea when their car breaks down. With neither Goldilocks nor Baba Yaga to blame, they soon meet Nadja (Paula Beer) who sells ice cream on the promenade of the resort town nearby and Devid (Enno Trebs), a lifeguard. Leon’s editor Helmut Werner (Matthias Brandt) is expected to come by on the weekend and Leon reserves him a suite in a hotel which once was frequented by the novelist Uwe Johnson. As best laid plans go awry, lives are altered forever.

A lot comes with the names in Afire. While Leon jumps to conclusions and calls Nadja “the Russian woman” before even meeting her, we may wonder about his own lionhearted-ness. As far as enjoying the sea and exposing his body in swimming trunks are concerned, he is more of a cowardly lion. Felix may seem happy-go-lucky, but there is more to the story than making him fortune’s child. Devid’s East-German spelling of his name is discussed over dinner and author Uwe Johnson (the J correctly pronounced like the Y in yes) is the perfect vehicle not only to address a branch of German tourism, but also to uncover a layer of Leon’s rancor.

An elegantly employed voice-over, a twice recited Heinrich Heine poem, imaginative storytelling, and the reading-out loud from Leon’s second, quite terrible, novel-in-progress, called Club Sandwich, make it Petzold’s most literary film to date. It is also his most culinary, in a sense. Besides the aforementioned book title, there is cold lasagne left on a table and goulash transported in a bag on a bicycle. When the finely tuned attention to details is combined with wonderfully intelligent performances by the actors, it is a pleasure to watch.

Leon (Thomas Schubert) with Nadja (Paula Beer) on the beach
Leon (Thomas Schubert) with Nadja (Paula Beer) on the beach

With the world afire, this rare specimen of a German summer movie is also frightfully timely. Ashes are raining down like snow, nature is in peril (a scene with a wild boar piglet is particularly disturbing but delivers a clear message on what is so often left out of reports on air quality), and young people are trying to make sense of it all. This is a new kind of horror scenario, an update on the long tradition of tales about enchanted forests where witches dwell, where wolves suggest shortcuts, and the sea glistens because a mermaid is striving for an immortal soul.

From Berlin, Christian Petzold joined me on Zoom for an in-depth Afire conversation on the morning of the second round of toxic air alerts for New York City due to the ongoing Canadian wildfires.

Anne-Katrin Titze: A reference I thought of was connected to Paula Beer in the wheelchair at the end. Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the wheelchair came to mind. In that case it was an accident that made the love story not possible, and in Afire it was more “selbstverschuldet,” his own fault. Did you think of that?

Christian Petzold: I more thought about these 24, 25-year-old young people, Paula Beer and the others, like you told me with the picture of the tennis ball against the wall. They want to be adult, but they’re a little bit regressive. They want to play, they want to have summers. They want to have music, sex with each other, parties, but it’s all a little bit as if we don’t have summers anymore. I know when I was their age there were thousands of summers for many many generations.

Leon (Thomas Schubert) with his manuscript flying
Leon (Thomas Schubert) with his manuscript flying

The atmosphere nowadays, I don’t know what it’s like in the United States, but in Germany you have the feeling that they don’t have a future and they can’t be young anymore. They have to do something. And to throw a ball against the house, or to sit down in the wheelchair of the publisher and play with it like a child who plays for five minutes to drive around with a wheelchair - they are so innocent in these moments. This is what I wanted to say. They are innocent and they are not guilty but they have so many hard things on their shoulders. Do you understand what I mean?

AKT: Yes, it’s not their fault, but they are thrown with all their innocence into something they did not cause but which was put upon them by past generations.

CP: Yes! And I also didn’t want anyone to get the sense that she has an affair with the publisher.

AKT: I never thought of that. It didn’t ever cross my mind.

CP: Me neither, but during the shooting there were two dumb guys. You know, dumb guys can ruin your whole day?

AKT: I do!

CP: They say “Hey, they f*cking with each other?” I say, “No, he has cancer, he has to die! She is coming to his place because they like each other and they are talking, perhaps about Heinrich Heine, but they are not f*cking!” I think it was Paula’s idea to sit down in the wheelchair, so that it’s more innocent and not erotic anymore.

Leon (Thomas Schubert) with Nadja (Paula Beer) and the goulash in the bag
Leon (Thomas Schubert) with Nadja (Paula Beer) and the goulash in the bag

AKT: I see! I thought about Deborah Kerr and the love that could have been.

CP: This is a good association! I remember this movie now that you have told me.

AKT: It’s good to rewatch. It’s really beautiful because there’s such great dialogue between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and how great they could have been together.

CP: Then she is sitting in the wheelchair?

AKT: Yes, and he thinks she didn’t come because she didn’t want to see him again.

CP: Oh, this is a fantastic movie! It all comes back now! They want to meet in New York or something …

AKT: On top of the Empire State Building!

CP: The Empire State Building!! This is great! It’s a melodrama.

AKT: Yes, with beautiful dialogue, Leo McCarey, 1957. I love it. Watch it again, Christian!

CP: I will do it!

AKT: On to Uwe Johnson! That’s a very funny scene. I introduced Jahrestage, Margarethe von Trotta’s film series and the new translation of the book here at Goethe Institut.

CP: Oh really?

Anne-Katrin Titze's vegan goulash
Anne-Katrin Titze's vegan goulash Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Yes, and Uwe Johnson has this “Überbau,” at least for me - an ex-boyfriend from a long time ago kept quoting the first lines about the railroad tracks in Mutmassungen über Jakob, which was his favourite book. There’s a cult around Uwe Johnson and I loved how you were using this in what goes both ways. Leon also shows his insecurities and feeling of superiority because of the way the hotel woman pronounces the name. Tell me a bit about that scene!

CP: You know, in the East of Germany near the Baltic Sea where Uwe Johnson had lived, there is now a new tourism. They want to have 5-star-hotels, want to have style. The hotels are the old houses from the 18th and 19th centuries near the Baltic Sea. But they have no style, they are primitive; the post-communist system is primitive because it totally destroyed all bourgeois things.

But you can find rooms in the hotels with violins or a white piano, and paintings on the wall but without any sense of style. They want to be a part of it. When I was there on a trip, many people said things like “My favourite philosopher is Walter Benjamin,” pronouncing the name like an American. It’s Uwe Johnson, as if he were the President of the United States. I had to laugh a little bit but I felt guilty that I had to laugh because, okay, they try! I’m an intellectual from the West and I [he stubs his nose] make jokes about them.

AKT: A lot goes on in our heads in these moments. I was wondering, where is Christian going with this Johnson business.

CP: Ha!

AKT: You return to the subject with Devid and the spelling of names in the GDR to make them more worldly.

Leon’s editor Helmut Werner (Matthias Brandt) with Nadja (Paula Beer)
Leon’s editor Helmut Werner (Matthias Brandt) with Nadja (Paula Beer)

CP: Yeah, a few years ago we made Yella. The main actor is David Striesow and he is telling me the story of his name. In the GDR America is the reference, it’s the target of desire. They want to have names like Americans, drive cars like Americans, chew chewing gum like the Americans but they can’t speak English. Because they have to learn Russian.

So they give themselves German names which sound like American names. It’s Mike as Maik, David as Devid. I like this a little bit, it’s the same thing Felix makes jokes about, but it’s not so arrogant compared to Thomas Schubert’s character.

AKT: There is also a hint at the difference in social background between them. Definitely great visuals, the goulash in the bag is pretty disgusting!

CP: It’s really disgusting! And we had a dinner here at the distributor’s place two weeks ago, because this movie was very successful in Germany. So he invites us for dinner and it was goulash. For me goulash was a good thing you can warm up, reheat. And the second thing is it looks very very disgusting when you have a bicycle accident and the goulash starts running out of a plastic bag.

Read what Christian Petzold had to say on summer movies, Paul Dano’s Wildlife cinematographer Diego García, Sophie Calle’s Voir La Mer and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, Astrid Lindgren, a Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre touch, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a Nanni Moretti quote, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G Ulmer’s Menschen Am Sonntag; and being a big fan of American horror movies.

Afire is in cinemas in the US.

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