Marina Ashioti

Afire – first-look review

Christian Petzold returns with something lighter, funnier and more instantly-lovable than his recent run, bringing regular leading lady Paula Beer along for the ride.

One of the most anticipated titles from the 2023 Berlinale’s competition slate comes from German auteur Christian Petzold who reunites with actress Paula Beer, following her Silver Bear-winning performance for her role as the titular water nymph in the director’s folk myth-driven romance, Undine. Afire is the second instalment of Petzold’s so-called “elemental trilogy”, and marks a welcome change of pace for the director, who returns to his home turf at the Berlinale with a film that’s much lighter and outwardly entertaining than what we’ve come to expect from him.

Two friends – Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel) – plan on spending some time at a cottage on the Baltic coast when their car breaks down, causing them to make their way through the forest on foot. Leon, an irritable writer mulling over the schmaltzy manuscript on his second novel, is intent on repeating the fact that the purpose of this sojourn is for work, while the more agreeable Felix, assembling a portfolio for an art school application, is happy to just go with the flow.

Their arrival at the cottage is met with the obvious signs of an unexpected third guest who’s already made herself comfortable, leaving a trail of dishes, leftovers and possessions scattered around the home. When we finally do meet this initially elusive guest, revealed to be Paula Beer’s effervescent Nadja, she and her nocturnal visitor Devid (Eno Terbs), who works as a rescue swimmer at the beach, quickly become close with Felix.

Leon, on the other hand, deliberately leaves himself out of the group’s activities, refusing every offer to let loose and opting instead for a more comfortable resignation to pessimism, procrastination and terminal bitterness. Saddled firmly on his high horse, the self-righteous cynic can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. Even when the entire thing is set ablaze, all that plagues our unlikely protagonist is a crushing weight of uncertainty that looms in anticipation of his publisher’s impending visit.

Hans Fromm’s cinematography beautifully captures slithers of light peeking through lush foliage around the cottage, painting a languid, Rohmerian picture of a sensual summer, though this postcard-perfect image is sure to be corrupted by the surrounding forest fires encroaching upon the area. Petzold taps into his inner Rohmer even further, embedding literary references to Uwe Johnson and Heinrich Heine into the fabric of the film.

Nadja’s recital of a short poem from Heine’s poetic collection, ‘Romanzero’, titled Der Asra, even provides a lyrical frame of reference linking Afire to Undine (and my tribe is the Asra / those who die, when they love), that’s visually bolstered by bioluminescent algae glimmering through the depths of the Baltic sea.

Afire culminates in a magnificent and poetic study of subjectivity, exploring the isolated anxieties of creative labour and a simultaneous entanglement of superiority and inferiority complexes, adding another compelling and precise layer of texture to Petzold’s multifaceted oeuvre.

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Published 23 Feb 2023

Tags: Afire Christian Petzold Paula Beer Thomas Schubert

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