Film Review: Burnt Offerings Accepted in Christian Petzold’s “Afire”

By Peter Keough

Preoccupied with the little melodramas of their lives and their careers in the arts, the characters in Afire put off acknowledging the gathering disaster that might end up at their doorstep.

Afire, directed by Christian Petzold. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

[Warning: some potential spoilers]

A scene from Afire. Photo: Janus Films

Watching Christian Petzold’s deceptively limpid Afire (the more evocative German title is Roter Himmel — “Red Sky” or “Red Heaven”) while flames rage through Greece, Canada, and the Western United States is akin to the experience of the characters in the film. Preoccupied with the little melodramas of their lives and their careers in the arts, they put off acknowledging the gathering disaster that might end up at their doorstep. As expected, in the face of nature’s fury, their personal concerns prove vanities. What is unexpected is that these vanities prevail.

Leon (played by Thomas Schubert, who resembles Rainer Werner Fassbinder if he had been played by Seth Rogen or maybe Jonah Hill) and his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) are en route to the latter’s family cottage by the Baltic coast to work on their respective creative projects.

But they soon run into problems. “Something isn’t right” is the film’s first line of dialogue, spoken by Felix over a black screen. The engine sputters and the car overheats some distance from their destination and Felix’s shortcut through the woods seems to be going in circles. When at last they arrive, the place proves to be occupied by Nadja (Paula Beer), a young woman whose aunt is friends with Felix’s mother. She first makes an appearance late that night when her noisy lovemaking with Devid (Enno Trebs) keeps Leon awake.

Easygoing Felix, who is trying to put together a portfolio of photos for his art school application, rolls with the situation. But Leon, struggling to finish a draft of a novel in time for a visit from his publisher (apparently the book industry is more author-friendly in Germany), is getting pissy. He disparages the interloper, questions her background (“Is she Russian?” he asks dismissively), and later, when he finds out she’s an ice cream vendor in town, mocks her seeming plebeian roots. But he is also fascinated, watching her on the sly when she rides her bike. Caught at this by a bemused Felix, he denies any interest in her.

Leon protests too much and by doing so increases his isolation. When Felix, Nadja, and Devid invite him to join them at the beach (Petzold has said in interviews that the film is inspired in part by Eric Rohmer’s seaside films The Collector, Pauline at the Beach, and A Summer’s Tale), he declines. “My work won’t allow me,” he insists. The more obnoxious he acts, the more he despises himself. “I am such an asshole,” he mutters, accurately. Still, despite Leon’s obvious disdain for her, Nadja shows remarkable forbearance toward him. So much so that at last he allows her to read his novel.

It does not go well. Things get worse when his publisher, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), arrives to discuss the book with him and compounds Leon’s annoyance with Nadja when he takes a shine to her. Learning that she is a PhD student in literature — specializing in Heinrich Heine, one of his favorite poets — he requests that she recite the Heine poem “The Asra.” It ends with the ominous lines, “my tribe, it is the Asra/ who die, when they love.”

Helmut also takes an interest in Felix’s project — portraits of people looking at the ocean — which Leon has previously scoffed at (“Water?” he sniffs. “That’s an element, not a theme”). As for Leon’s novel, titled Club Sandwich (in honor perhaps of Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye), well, Helmut looks pained.

Meanwhile, the little problem of the local wildfires has gotten harder to ignore. Helicopters bearing buckets of fire retardant zoom by, their chatter echoing the constant buzzing of flies on the soundtrack. Not directly referenced until 20 minutes into the film, the danger is constantly downplayed because, so one argument goes, the winds from the sea will keep it from spreading. No such luck: the conflagration finally announces itself with a rain of Vesuvius-like ash. Other portents follow, such as a family of wild boars fleeing the catastrophe, one of them, a baby, in flames.

Given these almost mythic images and the film’s Romantic connections — with the Heine poem and the Baltic seascapes of Caspar David Friedrich, among other references — might it be possible to interpret the fire as the objective correlative of Leon’s growing, rather petulant indignation? Such a reading would be in keeping with Petzold’s previous film Undine (2020) in which the title heroine (also played by Beer) has an integral connection not with the element fire but with water (the two films are the start of a Kieslowskian series Petzold is making). And like Afire, the earlier work also features an ominous German literary connection involving doomed love — the 19th-century writer Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte’s novella of the same title.

Such a self-aggrandizing analysis might be how narcissistic, solipsistic Leon might see the events surrounding him. But the far more empathetic — and sympathetic — Nadja chides him for this self-centeredness. “Are you even aware of anything?” she says at one point. “Do you see anything happening around you?”

In fact, he does. Just as Leon has underestimated her, she has underestimated him and the power of his craft. As shown in nearly every scene, he has been observing what’s going on — sometimes voyeuristically, often seething with resentment and guilt while he does so. But he’s taking it all in, nonetheless. The perversely redemptive, wrenchingly apt denouement demonstrates that, though the world may burn, art lives on.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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