Filmmaker Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Barbara) re-teams with actress Paula Beer from 2020’s Undine in his latest drama, Afire. As in the mermaid tale, the German director infuses his new work – on its face, a story about a grumpy writer on a retreat with his friend, underneath, a haunting allegory about climate change and humanity’s refusal to adequately address it – with a certain magic.
Author Leon (Thomas Schubert, King of Stonks) accompanies his friend Felix (Langston Uibel, Unorthodox) to a secluded cottage built by Felix’s dad. Leon’s hopes for a quiet retreat are interrupted by another occupant of the house, Nadja (Beer). Easygoing Felix and friendly Nadja encourage Leon to take a breather from his work, but he scorns them both. (Honestly, Leon is such a snobby asshole, I couldn’t understand why a sweet soul like Felix would be friends with him in the first place.)
Leon is our antihero, a man who prefers to observe instead of doing something. He creeps on Nadja and reads her journal, an obsession with her beginning to grow. He rudely interrogates dinner guest Devid (Enno Trebs, The White Ribbon) in one cringeworthy scene. His self-absorption knows no bounds.
There’s a point in the film where I began to wonder if Nadja wears the same red dress all the time to illustrate how Leon doesn’t truly see her. He is infatuated with the woman he assumes her to be, making little effort to get to know the person she is. Leon is hesitant to acknowledge or encourage Felix’s talent; it seems he barely knows this friend at all. In Leon’s mind, everything is about him. He is literally the main character in his own story, even in situations where he should play (and be) supporting.
During their stay, forest fires edge ever closer to their area. The tenants assume they’re okay because of the winds from the nearby sea. Fire is a magical, yet destructive element here; there’s a beauty and a horror to the fire imagery shown. The ashes blowing into the guest’s yard are a symbol of impending doom.
While not as comedic as another European climate change feature, Woman at War, Afire is similar in its subtle message delivery to film-goers. What could be yet another feature film about a white male who thinks too much of himself instead delves hidden depths in the hands of this writer and director. Will we be like Leon and remain stuck in our own minds, ignoring the lives of those around us? With Afire, Petzold challenges the viewer to observe and take action.
Afire opens this weekend at AFS Cinema in Austin.