A Very Serious Writer Will Not Have Fun (or Write) in Wry Dramedy Afire

Movies Reviews Christian Petzold
A Very Serious Writer Will Not Have Fun (or Write) in Wry Dramedy Afire

In Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris writes about his time in college, hanging around with stoner film students, watching “grainy black-and-white movies in which ponderous, turtlenecked men slogged the stony beaches, cursing the gulls for their ability to fly.” It’s an arthouse cliché, the depressed Bergman beach goth wandering the coast, furious at anyone enjoying themselves. And what better way to enliven a cliché than to ignite it? Christian Petzold douses these downers in gasoline with Afire, a blackly funny and piercing character study focused on the working vacation of an unpleasant novelist and those he inflicts himself upon.

Petzold’s romantic fable Undine dove into water as its elemental inspiration, and its opposite—here manifesting as uncontrolled forest fires—closes in on the Baltic beachside home inherited by photographer Felix (Langston Uibel). It’s there that his friend Leon (Thomas Schubert) plans to finish up his second book before his publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) arrives. Felix has vaguely decided to assemble his portfolio, but Leon’s intense dedication to his writing (or, at least, talking about having to write) sears his pomposity into our minds. Though Felix and Leon are both intrigued by the unexpected presence of an elusive housemate, Nadja (Paula Beer), the true third wheel of their stay is Leon’s unrelenting, miserable ego.

Nadja’s mystique (and sexuality; the men at first only know her as moans through a bedroom wall) draws Leon in, but in true incel fashion, inspires an equal amount of spite. He displays the same entitlement towards her affection as he does towards artistic success—he deserves it, and everyone else going after it is beneath him. Schubert’s performance is needy and cruel, a sneer or scowl always on his face, under darkened blue eyes glowering beneath blonde, boyish hair. It’s an aesthetically petulant juxtaposition—nobody’s less sympathetic than a snobby, snotty, pissy little boy-man. But Schubert’s great ability (and that of Petzold’s script) is in hiding a pout behind every expression, hiding tears inside his glares. He’s terrible, but he’s deeply sad about it. He claims to exile himself because of his work, but it might be that he doesn’t think he’s worth anyone’s time.

Counterbalancing this is Nadja’s bluntness, Felix’s happy-go-lucky breeziness, and the chiseled, punchable confidence of Nadja’s midnight hook-up, Devid (Enno Trebs), a hot lifeguard—sorry, rescue swimmer. Their ensemble chemistry is idyllic and easy, mimicking the flow of the nearby ocean. Devid tells a meandering joke-story (in a long take that lets Trebs shine) with a flirty little punchline that adds sexual fluidity to the mix. The vibe of the party is that of the seaside vacation town, filled with unserious recreational clutter.

Afire’s structure is as realist as its aesthetic. The days pass, and Petzold’s languid camera forms intimate frames, watching Leon doze through the sun-kissed mornings’ potential, then awake to frustration at dusk and loneliness needling him in the dark Prussian blue night. The presence of the camera, music, light and the edit is all discreet—the most obvious stylistic deviations from the realistic norm are feints at horror that give insight into Leon’s anxious mind. There are the firefighting planes that you never see, but only hear roaring overhead. There is the whirling first-person camera, searching, searching for the squealing of forest boars. There are the jump cuts when emotions run hot, or when time slips away.

As Leon fritters away his retreat, he grows increasingly prickly. A professional grump, he rebuffs any and all invitations. He is procrastination personified, bouncing a ball off the wall and doing anything to avoid the writing he clings to as an excuse and an identity. Well, anything but have fun.

The holiday clutter extends past the production design and to the activities on hand. Swimming, getting ice cream, cycling, dining, sex, sex and more sex—Leon’s refusal to relax and inability to work trap him in self-loathing limbo. And the most hateable thing about Leon is how relatable his hatefulness is. The rueful, resentful loneliness that crops up in self-defense of an over-inflated sense of self-importance is clear as day, its complexity melted away by Schubert to reveal simple hurt.

Despite the hot emotions building in tandem with the encroaching wildfire, water still plays a large part in Afire, as something sexual and enticing, something that draws the gaze. But it remains inaccessible to Leon, who never swims despite his friends’ urging. Leon mostly wears black, fully covered, while those around him go shirtless or dress in beachy brights. What’s the point of a seaside cottage if you never actually allow yourself the luxury of the sea? At least Tantalus got to be in the pool. True to Petzold’s interest in layering artistic forms on top of one another, a recitation, then immediate re-recitation, of Heinrich Heine’s “The Asra” is both a bold tangent and a thematic clue. The poem—involving a slave, drawn to a princess and a fountain, who is from a people “who perish when we love”—evokes the irresistible entanglement of passion and pain.

This fills in the shadows of Afire‘s dark humor with bittersweetness. It’s still funny when Leon’s terrible book is immediately overshadowed by Felix’s idea for a project (portraits of people looking at the sea; three pictures per person, first from behind, then straight on, then of the sea itself), but it’s also crushing. Watching someone break, watching them realize that they cannot observe life at the expense of living it, is painful even if they’re terrible. When Nadja, who is naturally far more than Leon gives her credit for being, lays down the law, it’s a mercy killing. “Are you even aware of anything?” asks Beer, in one of many devastating line readings. The answer is obvious.

As Afire shifts gears into the tragedy that accompanies this clarity, contrivances and tropes veer the insightful and easygoing film’s small-scale dramedy far off course. An atonal ending and postscript is jarringly plotty and severe—novelistic in a bad way, where something needs to happen as a shock to the system. The structural gambit is a final, grand attempt at shaking Leon from his haze, but Petzold’s wry observations have been so understated and winning that a hard left turn risks self-immolation. But the careful control displayed throughout Afire allows its deep, elegant characterizations to persist through the narrative smog, long after the rest of the film burns away.

Director: Christian Petzold
Writer: Christian Petzold
Starring: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt
Release Date: July 28, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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