Berlin: The filmmaker trades the capital-H history of “Phoenix” and romantic fantasy of “Undine” for a more subdued — and sometimes surprisingly funny — character study.
“Something is wrong,” says tortured author Leon (Thomas Schubert) in an uncommon bout of observation. Say what you will about this blinkered sourpuss, but his assessment, in the opening moments to Christian Petzold’s “Afire,” is right on target. Seconds later, a car battery will explode, stranding the young novelist and his travel mate Felix (Langston Uibel) in a coastal forest beset by fires, echoing in animal howls, and ever-so far from the family home where the pair intend to spend a quiet artistic retreat. So credit to Leon for this early feat of recognition — he’ll never be so perceptive again.
Gently dunking on a writer of near-apocalyptic pomposity over the course of a languid seaside vacation, Petzold’s latest film plays a bit like “Barton Fink” by way of Eric Rohmer, though the slight dramedy never quite equals either of those highs. Still, this smoldering tour through the life of the mind marks an endearing change of pace for the talented filmmaker, who trades the capital-H history of “Phoenix” and romantic fantasy of “Undine” for a more subdued — and sometimes surprisingly funny — character study.
Though it gives this humbled correspondent no pleasure to admit, the film’s protagonist embodies his profession’s sorriest aspects with devastating accuracy (that Petzold takes the sole screenplay credit offers the glimmer of hope that some of this is self-critique). A writer by trade, Leon is a professional procrastinator. He is distracted by the humdrum responsibilities — like eating, sleeping, and eecchh, talking to others — that obstruct his true calling, and despondent once that noise fades away, leaving him nothing but the empty page.
Shrugging off the appeal of sea and sun once he and Felix finally hoof it to the vacation home, Leon stays behind to work — a process that mostly consists of puttering around, listening to music, and scrambling to look busy once someone looks his way.
For Felix, that’s just as well. A photographer working on his application to art school, the character offsets Leon in nearly every way. One is dour and stocky, the other lithe and energetic; one an artist that looks inward, the other someone who goes out into the world. Felix is “Yes And” while his roommate says “No But,” and so, once they learn of a third, unexpected house guest, the gregarious photographer makes sure to buy enough food for three.
Mind you, they don’t stay three for long, because the sunny seasonal worker Nadja (Petzold stalwart Paula Beer) shares more than a few traits with Felix. Doubling the house’s magnetism, this summer colony soon pulls in the goofy lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) and the influential publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) — all under Leon’s disapproving glare.
Sharing the same roof, the characters find themselves in two very different films. While the others play summery games of musical beds and swapping rambling anecdotes over endless pools of wine, Leon has no time for such frivolity. He is a Serious Artist, suffering for his calling with the fervor promised by the film’s title and the aridity causing the surrounding forests to ignite. Of course, you never do see the blaze, one of many elements Petzold deliberately leaves off-screen in a narrative meant to evoke suffocating myopia.
The concept is both strong and thin. At first, this drip-drop of story beats allows for a number of delicious payoffs, setting up many punchlines too delicious to share here. But overall, “Afire” doesn’t have that much story to tell or cards to turn over. When it does run out of reveals, we’re left with a character too thick to catch up and an approach that begins to double itself. With the viewers’ point-of-view ostensibly tied to Leon’s, the conceptual hook wanes once the character must learn lessons the film has already addressed, first showing and then telling and then reiterating for good measure, leaving little room for ambiguity.
The question of Leon’s output is the most obvious example. If “Afire” initially frames Leon and Felix as avatars of competing artistic approaches — to go outward or to look in — the story itself leaves no question as to which it prefers. While Leon certainly suffers for his art, he does not suffer from writer’s block; in fact, he arrives at the Baltic Sea vacation with near-finished manuscript. As the character waits for an editorial response, his is an anguish of doubt and anticipation.
And as it delays the reveal of Leon’s text until well past the halfway mark, “Afire” turns around questions of talent: We know that Leon’s a bad housemate, and not much of a friend, but is he a good writer? Leon, what’s it all about? Except by the time the film offers a definitive response, the viewer has already answered that question several times over.
To dance ever so gently around the more melodramatic turns of act three, we could say that “Afire” offers a resolution — a redemption of sorts — that seems to directly contradict its previous position. Petzold tries to take the air out of a pompous windbag, and more often than not succeeds to delightful and caustic effect. After making original and inventive screen arguments about the importance of community and curiosity when creating art, the film closes with a coda that somehow reifies that Great Artist claptrap it had previously tried to refute. One takes no pleasure in seeing a fire with such force eventually flame out, but then, to see what is in front of one’s nose is indeed a constant struggle.
“Afire” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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