Right from the opening moments of Christian Petzold’s Afire, things start to go wrong. The car taking friends Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel) to their holiday home by the Baltic breaks down and, after trekking through the forest to get there, they discover they’ll be sharing with somebody else – a total stranger. But that’s not all. There’s a sense of unease among the trees: the animal noises sound off-kilter but the wildlife, and whatever has unsettled them, are well hidden. For now, anyway.
Leon is writer, obsessed with himself and finishing his latest book, while Felix is working on a photography project. Both are aiming to concentrate on their work among the peace of the countryside, but Nadja (Paula Beer), the third person in the house, proves to be something of a distraction, especially for Leon. During the day, she works at the resort, where she’s got to know lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) and the sounds of their energetic nighttime lovemaking do nothing for Leon’s sleep. As the summer progresses, everybody around him seems to be having a carefree time, while he feels increasingly awkward and jealous of their ability to enjoy themselves. And, while their individual desires and tensions play out, the forest fires which distressed the animals grow menacingly closer.
The director of Phoenix (2014) and Transit (2018), Pentzold indulges in his customary fascination with personal mystery, but this time his focus isn’t on the main character. In a beautifully observed and wryly funny character study, we quickly get to know Leon and, even if he’s not necessarily likeable, understanding him isn’t hard. He takes his work seriously and can’t understand why nobody else does. He’s not especially sociable, more than a little insecure and you suspect his regular rejection of invitations to go swimming is because he can’t admit he’s not a water baby. He’s also convinced that his latest book, The Club Sandwich, is a dud and, given the title’s uncanny similarity to an especially bad album from Spinal Tap (and one critic’s two word review of it), chances are he’s right. It haunts him and Schubert brilliantly conveys Leon’s inability to be part of the group, even though he desperately wants to be. The moment when he eventually smiles is a revelation.
It’s Nadja who’s the mysterious one, with her character unfolding gently and elegantly in an equally captivating performance from Beer. Her more relaxed attitude to life attracts Leon like a moth to a flame and, while it’s mutual, she’s in no doubt that he’s not an easy personality. Nor does she hold back from telling him a few home truths, that he can never see what’s going right under his nose. It’s a key moment in the film. He’s concentrating on writing something that’s pure fiction, yet what’s happening in his life right now – his relationships, the encroaching fires and their effect – are what should be inspiring him.
With a smouldering quality that doesn’t just come from the tensions between the characters – you can almost smell the sweaty summer heat and, when ash falls from the sky like huge snowflakes, the temperature rises further, but in a different way – Afire draws you in to the lives of its four main protagonists, yet there’s always an element of uncertainty. Where Petzold takes them next is never obvious and the climax comes as a bolt from the blue. But Leon’s solitary smile will stick with you long afterwards. As will the film as a whole.
Comedy, Drama | UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema, 25 August 2023 | Curzon | Cert:12A | German, with English sub-titles | Dir: Christian Petzold | Thomas Schubert, Langston Uibel, Paula Beer, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt.