Screening at Tribeca Film Festival 2023 in its New York premiere, Afire was an entry in the Spotlight Narrative section. Writer/director Christian Petzold had won the Silver Berlin Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for his ironic, droll and humorous work for good reason. Poetic, thrilling with tension and angst, Afire is a film of youth, love, loss and growth. Beautifully edited and superbly acted, it shines, timeless, against other films’ superficiality at a cultural juncture when we most need the profound.
The story opens on writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) and photographer Felix (Langston Uibel) driving through the woods to spend time at a beach house on the Baltic Sea to work and swim. When their car breaks down, Felix, who knows the area, leaves the timid Leon amid the eerie sounds in the forest as the sunlight dims. In jest, when returning Felix sneaks up on Leon who, frightened, wrestles with him in annoyance and relief. Then, the young men gather their luggage and walk the remaining distance to the house.
Plans interrupted by the vibrant Nadja
Surveying the kitchen, Felix remarks that they might not be alone as planned. When he phones his mother, he discovers that Nadja (Paula Beer), a family friend, plans to stay there for the summer. Felix assures Leon they will enjoy Nadja’s cooking. Initially, Leon doesn’t care. However, Felix explains the two men must share a room. This puts out Leon because he needs alone-time to write. The situation worsens after he sees Nadja. Shy and introverted, Leon feels unnerved by her presence. Increasingly, she bewitches him and gets into his head, becoming an obsession he can’t confront or eliminate.
The following evening when Nadja comes in late with her boyfriend Devid (Enno Trebs), they disturb Leon by playing loud music. Their vocal lovemaking cries penetrate the thin walls. Disgruntled and upset, Leon goes to the pergola to sleep outdoors – where the gnats and bugs eat him up. In the morning Felix tells Nadja that Leon needs quiet. Rueful, she apologizes and attempts to make amends. Leon’s dour response bums out Felix whose friendliness with Devid and Nadja counters Leon’s terse, self-absorption and isolation.
Central to the action, Leon’s brusque, immature attitude conflicts with the others who are about having fun. Nothing anyone does or says to him can be right during this time of annoyance and frustration.
Leon is nervous about meeting with his agent
Eventually, we discover reasons for his unfriendly, aloof manner and insistence he must work. His agent will be meeting with him to discuss his novel, Club Sandwich. He confides in Nadja that he fears what his agent will say. Insecure about his talent and ability, his writing success means everything to him. Nadja offers to read his work and critique it.
Devastated that she doesn’t like the novel, he recoils when she affirms he knows he can write something better.
Meanwhile, Felix and Devid bond over repairing the leaking roof. To Leon’s surprise, they establish a sexual relationship. Thus, Nadja shares the room with Leon, giving up the larger bed to Felix and Devid. With the exception of Leon, the three have enjoyed each other freely. The inherent humor in the switching of partners and beds leads to our determination that Leon’s issues run deeper than just nervousness at his agent’s arrival and his novel’s success.
Indeed, Leon’s inability to work and his social paralysis reveal his identity crisis in the face of his unalloyed emotions for Nadja. However, he won’t speak to her about his feelings and is defensively curt and insulting. When his agent Helmut (Matthias Brandt) arrives for dinner, Nadja exposes her true calling as a writer going for her Ph.D. This torments Leon, and his anger that she most probably writes better than he spills out against her. The scene is hysterical. Leon’s fear that she will benefit from a relationship with Helmut, while he founders in failure, overwhelms him.
Emotions paralleling forest wildfires
The fire of his conflicting emotions parallels the summer drought and heat. The news that forest fires in the south have ended is updated: The winds have dangerously shifted. Unaware of this danger, Felix and Devid borrow a tractor with the thought of towing the car back to the house to get it repaired. After Felix and Devid leave, Helmut has an attack of pain and Nadja drives him to a nearby hospital. With no room in the small car, Leon runs after them and encounters the fire’s danger. The flames force him to switch to another path to arrive at the hospital. The forest as metaphor and reality creates a scene full of tension.
Fearing Nadja and Helmut may fall in love, Leon confronts her. Having withstood his nasty attitude to the breaking point, Nadja upbraids his narcissism. She angrily tells him to note the type of ward where Helmut receives treatment and labels him an “a$$hole.”
Segments of the film clue in viewers to the conflict between Felix, Devid, and Nadja versus Leon. One concerns the poem “Der Asra” by Henrich Heine which Nadja recites beautifully at dinner. Not only does it speak to the themes of the film, it supplies the subtext of Leon’s emotionally heartbreaking conflict.
The cinematography rocks
The cinematography of the fire’s before-and-after scenes and destruction are chilling and stark. The reminder that life makes no guarantees strikes the young folks with fury. The director symbolizes this theme through the images and reinforces it through the concluding events. Leon realizes his petulant, infantile self-indulgence and apologizes. How the situation resolves makes for a powerful and poignant conclusion.
Afire is memorable because of its images, its themes, its sterling performances and stark distillations of truth at the conclusion. It’s a must-see. Look for it on streaming platforms, and read the original Tribeca Film Festival guide write-up.