By José Alberto Hermosillo
“Afire” is a film of elegant simplicity that fuels Christian Petzold's newest masterful piece with fire, desire, creativity, and wry humor.
The story takes time to take off. Later, the plot expands into a massive wave of intrinsic emotions. The characters' relationships swap naturally, and their romances are torched, internally and environmentally speaking.
Leon and Felix drive to a resort town in the Baltic seacoast to spend quality time when their car breaks down in the middle of the woods. They must continue walking a few miles to Felix's mother's country house.
Immersed in finishing his next novel, Leon, played by Thomas Schubert, becomes the story's anti-hero due to his insecurities and desire to be left alone. The joy of having dinner with friends is slipping out of his hands. Others see his anti-charismatic approach as a person who is wasting his life for nothing. According to the director, Christian Petzold, Leon is a complete douchebag many viewers could identify with.
His partner Felix (Langston Uibel) is an outgoing photographer looking for inspiration for a series of people’s portraits. While trying to sleep, they listened to a series of sexual noises from the next room. Nadja is having sex with Devid (Enno Trebs), the hunky beach lifeguard who does not mind evolving his bisexuality openly.
Nadja, played superbly by Paola Bear (“Franz,” “Never Look Away,” “Undine”), is an educated, enigmatic, and blissful woman who, besides her sex addiction, sells ice cream in the plaza while hiding her knowledge in literature.
Leon’s novel, "Club Sandwich,” turned out very badly. It took three days for Christian to write the first chapter of that novel for the publisher Helmut (Mathias Brandt) to read it out loud and to sound clumsy in the film.
In the scene where Nadja criticizes Leon’s work, he dies figuratively, not knowing she is more than an ice cream seller. She does not show off her intellectual capabilities or what she truly is, so she has to look casual and candid about herself and his emotions. At the same time, he has to be cautious and intelligent about a situation he is getting in because now he knows that she is not the object of his desire.
Nevertheless, Leon’s anti-charismatic, unsecured, and contradictory character is depicted with Christian’s personal touches and autobiographical elements in writing. It is a kind of psychoanalysis for the director, who is also an artist. He portrayed himself as a loser in his early films, like in “Cuba Libre,” so why not continue doing it in “Afire.”
In Christian Petzold's previous and complex projects, “Transit” and “Undine,” the female characters always betray their male counterpart, and “Afire” is no exception. The male figures continuously struggle to express their feelings, and their problems seeking intimacy are apparent.
After finishing shooting “Undine,” the Award-winning director planned to meet with his recurrent actress Paola Bear in Paris in 2020. Still, both were stuck with Covid-19 in their respective cities. While recovering, they decided to meet in Berlin to start working on “Afire" - titled in German, "Roter Himmel" or "Red Sky.” Both director and actress worked previously in “Transit,” “Undine.”
In a conversation with dozens of fans and film students between the “Afire” and “Phoenix” screenings in Santa Monica, California, Christian Petzold said he had a fascination for dystopian movies. Now, he writes and adapts films closer to reality.
|Christian Petzold & film students at the Aero in Santa Monica. Photo José Alberto Hermosillo. Copyright © Festival in LA, 2023|
Petzold added something even more profound, "The badge we leave behind is meaningful and will make sense later in our professional and personal lives. Because the real value is not on material things such as a car, a book, or a manuscript, it is more about the emotional badges within a relationship and the possibilities of personal growth with the person you love."
People often asked him if he would choose another element to complete the trilogy after initiating the series with “Undine,” representing water, and “Afire,” representing fire. The answer is no. He wants to go on a sabbatical.
The director does not lecture his public in defense of the environment and global warming through his latest work. He does not have a political agenda. The fire represents what needs to be extinguished, and the main characters could expand their intellectual capabilities, bringing complexity and the surprise element to the ending.
The concept of "labor and leisure" presented in “Afire,” where a writer retreats to a quiet place in the woods to focus on his next novel, is similar to the 2021 Mia Handset-Løve's “Bergman Island,” in which a couple wants to be inspired for their following projects on the same island where Ingmar Bergman wrote and filmed his most famous masterpieces.
In the 1945 John Stahl's classic thriller “Leave Her to Heaven,” everything is set ambiguously to make the spectator wonder who these people are: the writer and the obsessed woman who never thinks about the consequences of her acts.
Finally, in Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” a more obscure and sinister example is set in the leisurely area of Martha’s Vineyard, where a second writer is hired to take over and write a former British Prime Minister’s memoir.
The Grand Jury Prize Silver Bear winner at the Berlin Film Festival is a movie that makes the audience feel conscious of the surroundings. Petzold's latest project is clever, humorous, and sophisticated, where spectators can identify with any of these terrific, intelligent, and meticulously well-established characters, where dreams can be tested due to weather conditions and climate change.
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