‘Afire’ Review: Lives Collide in Christian Petzold’s Sensible Story of Unfulfilled Love | Berlinale 2023
‘Afire’ brings levity and tragedy to a story of unexpected encounters and the ultimate dangers of being alive.
Few things are more devastating to the human spirit than unfulfilled promises of love. Christian Petzold‘s latest film, Afire, approaches the subject with a unique sensibility, bringing levity and tragedy to a story of unexpected encounters and the ultimate dangers of being alive.
Afire follows young writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) as he escapes with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) to an isolated house in the woods close to the Baltic Sea. To Leon, the trip represents the opportunity to work on his second book, a literary project that’s not going too well. And since Felix is supposed to create a photography portfolio for his art school appliance, Leon is confident he’ll finish his book and find the inspiration that evades him. Leon is convinced he’s supposed to do great things with his work, and getting far away from the city means other people won’t get in his way of creating a masterpiece.
Unfortunately for Leon, life has a way of messing up our plans, and even before getting in the house, the two friends’ journey is haunted by unwanted detours. The biggest obstacle for Leon to get some work done comes in the shape of Nadja (Paula Beer), who Felix’s mother invited to stay in the family’s house without warning her son. So, instead of peace and tranquility, Leon is greeted by loud sex, a messy kitchen, and the woman’s seemingly chaotic way of life.
Afire revolves around Leon’s self-centered nature, as his work takes priority over any and every mundane pleasure he could find during the getaway. Meanwhile, Felix discovers new ways to create art just by relaxing and enjoying the present time. Felix’s unnerving lack of commitment to work only gets worse with the presence of Nadja and her lover Devid (Enno Trebs). The four young adults soon begin to share the same ceiling, which leads to hilarious situations caused by Leon’s irremediable grumpiness and everyone else’s desire to embrace the joys of sharing a meal or taking a walk on the beach.
To Leon’s despair, both Felix and his new friends also seem to be more fulfilled and successful than the writer. Still, instead of reflecting on his own actions, he insists on blaming other people for all the distractions that keep getting in the way of his productivity. So, at its core, Afire is all about this social anxiety that prevents us from seizing the day, due to the pressure of a future glory that never comes. And in Leon’s case, that also means closing his heart to the possibility of love, the most tragic of fates.
It’s not random that Afire is named after the dangerous forest fires that threaten to push everyone out of their refuge. The fire taints the sky with a red light, as a constant reminder that everything people hold dear could be suddenly lost, if only the wind decides to gulf in the wrong direction. The skies are ominous, but life goes on in the secluded house, while Nadja does what she can to force Leon out of his shell.
Sure, Afire‘s message of the inevitability of death and the absolute need to embrace life can be a little on the nose. Still, Petzold puts his own spin on the old message, by inviting the audience to laugh and cry as four lives get intertwined in a very honest and human way. The movie also counts a fabulous cast to bring its delicious characters to life, with Beer delivering a particularly layered performance that easily enthralls the viewer. As a result, it’s impossible to get out of Afire‘s screening feeling indifferent to the beauty Petzold’s built in this small slice of the world.
Afire had its world premiere at 2023’s Berlin Film Festival.