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Afire ★★★★



Directed: Christian Petzold

Cast: Paula Beer, Thomas Schubert, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs

Released: 25th August 2023 (UK cinemas)

Christian Petzold has long held a skill at creating transfixing, detailed cinema. From the haunting historical mystery of Phoenix to the fantastical fablelike Undine, his films feel undefinable, always pressing forward with unpredictability, never happy resting on the basic concepts of their stories. Afire is no different. Despite its tonal navigation feeling slightly jarring and unassured, his latest remains an alluring and appetising medley of unspoken feelings, stolen glances, snide comments, simmering frustration, and what might be love but could equally be hatred. Something is there at every beat in every scene; each one has a loaded, potent quality. The buildup is less assured than in other Petzold films, but Afire ranks as a marvellously odd, deliciously dark navigation of flawed humans and their relationships.

Friends Leon and Felix (Thomas Schubert and Langston Uibel, respectively) arrive at the latter’s family holiday home on the Baltic Sea in Germany. The house sits enticingly close to the busy beach, but it provides solitude for Leon, who is writing a novel, and Felix, who is completing an assignment for art school. Leon is grumpy, a ‘woe is me’ novelist who becomes frustrated with Felix’s poor work ethic and tendency to drink and relax on the beach. Two unexpected guests in the form of Paula Beer’s Nadja and Enno Trebs’ Devid bring fire to an already tense situation.

The concept is intriguing, but the setup’s execution feels tepid, and Afire generally comes across as cold, with the characters’ disconnect and disarray flowing into our viewing experience. It makes for a somewhat jarring but undoubtedly unique experience. That glint of drama, that flicker of suspense are near constant throughout Afire: Devid’s carefree attitude further angers Leon; Nadja and Leon seem curious about one another but also deeply confused by their feelings; Leon’s writing struggles worsen, even more so when his editor drops by. Throughout this, Petzold slots wry comedy into proceedings. The overarching components of Afire don’t click instantly, but on reflection, the density of this enigmatic, character-driven drama becomes more invigorating than initially thought.

Backing up this suspense is the danger of the surrounding forest fires. The uncontrollable natural disaster slowly closes in on the quartet, mirroring their similarly volatile emotions. All four actors bring fascinating elements to Afire, but Schubert and Beer as the leads are unforgettable. The latter is pitch perfect as Leon, his sour face and slumped body language amplifying the petulance and pretentiousness of this tortured artist. Beer is Schubert’s equal, and her performance is as layered as always, but in Afire, her character holds great sway and power over Leon. Her strength as a woman seems to catch Leon off guard. The romance between the two becomes difficult to define—is it even romantic?—but Petzold expertly navigates this rocky terrain and its unexpected feelings with great realism.

Ultimately, Afire is a deep study of flawed, tangible characters. It feels loosely formed, and its abstractness can sometimes be frustrating, but it is an undeniably tactile, utterly refreshing portrayal of intense human turbulence. Hans Fromm’s silky cinematography reflects Afire‘s mystery and authenticity: the Ahrenshoop setting feels vividly realised and feeds directly into our characters and their actions. Leon may be the least likeable lead Petzold has ever fashioned, and how he portrays this flawed man-child with such complexity is so impressive. Afire is another enigmatic addition to the Petzold filmography that will perplex as much as it will mesmerize.

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