Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Petzold’s most literary film to date." | Photo: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films

Christian Petzold’s slow-burning Afire (Roter Himmel, a highlight in the Spotlight Narrative program of the 22nd edition of the Tribeca Film Festival and the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize winner.), shot by Hans Fromm, stars Paula Beer (of Petzold’s Transit and Undine opposite Franz Rogowski, and François Ozon’s Frantz), Thomas Schubert, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, and Matthias Brandt.

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. Animal shrieks fill the air. The area had recently experienced a number of devastating wildfires. When they arrive on foot at the vacation home belonging to Felix’s family, which was supposed to be theirs alone to work on respective projects - a photography submission to the art academy for Felix, finishing touches on his second novel for Leon - they find the washing machine running and dirty dishes and bottles scattered around the kitchen.

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 rancour.

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.

“Schatten” (shadow) is the title of the book read by Leon, and the word is on an exhibition poster in the summer house. Leo McCarey’s An Affair To Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr ends with a discovery connected to a wheelchair. So does Afire, alas with a different turn of what could have been. Leon lives in his mind (as a song reminds us from the start) and Thomas Schubert is dexterous in respectively letting us into his thoughts, and shutting us out. While the other four protagonists bond in a variety of earthly ways, Leon declines most invitations to have fun with the line “my work won’t allow it,” while in reality he tosses a tennis ball against the side of the house in utter boredom.

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.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2023
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Afire packshot
Tensions and desire bloom among five people at a holiday home by the Baltic Sea.
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Director: Christian Petzold

Writer: Christian Petzold

Starring: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt

Year: 2023

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Germany

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