By – Gareth Jones
For fans of Christian Petzold, modern angst with a bit of romance, meta-conversation about the apocalypse
With ten feature length films and several made for television films, Christian Petzold has established himself as one of the premier German directors working today. He is consistent in his output and critics and audiences have built up expectations of his work. Afire is a brilliant continuation of this ascent into the upper echelon of contemporary global directors.
It tells the story of a writer, a lovable schlub who checks many of the stereotypes of the struggling writer. His name is Leon. He wears only dark clothing. He has a constant look of frustration and or consternation. However, in spite of these stereotypes, Petzold has created with the superb acting of Thomas Schubert, a fully rounded (he is also slightly overweight) character that is sympathetic in spite of his ill humor and relations. The story begins with Leon and his photographer friend Felix, traveling to a beach home owned by Felix’s family. First the car breaks down, then they discover that a young woman is already occupying the house. This and many other happenings gives Leon the excuse to avoid editing his newest novel. He needs to get work done, but he is easily distracted. In particular, he is distracted by the lovely Nadia, the woman staying at the house. He is immediately smitten. Hilarity could ensue, and there are several genuinely funny moments, but Petzold has the talent to create a story that moves beyond the stereotypes and expectations. Will they or won’t they is combined with higher philosophical questions about artistic expression and how we connect to each other as humans.
In particular, I want to highlight how natural the film feels. The actors inhabit the roles and we are immediately on board with their expressions and experiences. Petzold builds up a world that could move into a horrific ending or something else. We are constantly reminded of the impending pressures of nature and the world outside of the insular world of Leon and his temporary concerns. However, it is the interplay between Leon’s blindness and the world around him that gives the film such depth and meaning. He needs to live life and open himself to nature. The beach, wind, forest, and all of the natural world play an important role in this development.
All of this is structured around a song. “In My Mind” by the Wallners opens and closes the film. It perfectly bookends the story and the characters. It serves as a theme song for Leon but also for his thoughts and emotions in relation to Nadja and Felix. I also should point out how fantastic Paula Beer is as Nadja. She says so much with movement and touch. It can be heartbreaking.
This film was definitely one of my favorites in 2023 and I hope you discover it in 2024.
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel
Written by: Gareth Jones
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