“Afire” – Flames without heat [MOVIE REVIEW]

Thomas Schubert as Leon, Paula Beer as Nadja, Langston Uibel as Felix and Enno Trebs as Devid. Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films.

Christian Petzold, writer and director of “Afire,” is a metaphorical storyteller. His movies “Phoenix,” “Transit” and “Undine” are films where the narrative is only the beginning of what he really wants to say. Although not as immersive or allegorical as his previous films, “Afire” is, nevertheless, an exploration of emotions that are hidden in plain sight. 

Leon and Felix are on the way to the family summer home of Felix where both will work on their long standing projects. Felix, an artist, must put together a photographic portfolio for his Art School application. Leon, a writer with a successful first novel under his belt, is on deadline to complete his second novel. He is very much looking forward to the promise of peace and quiet by the seaside. Ominous clouds emerge, foretelling, if not disaster, difficulties on the horizon. On the way, their Mercedes blows a gasket and they are forced to walk the rest of the way. For fit Felix it is, literally, a walk in the park; for dumpy Leon it is a sweaty slog in the forest primeval. Further adding a sense of danger are the fires to the north, and then there is the additional  inconvenience of an unexpected guest in the house. Her nighttime habits with strangers are noisy and quite vigorous, heard through the thin walls. Leon, without sleep, is more than annoyed; Felix is more a go-with-the-flow kind of guy and eagerly wants to meet their “roommate,” if only to put a face with the sound, 

Paula Beer as Nadja. Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films

Always on the go, it takes a couple of days before they meet beautiful Nadja who mans an ice cream stand at the beach. She is more than humiliated that she has been keeping them up and vows to make it up to them by making dinner. Soon she integrates herself into their routine, although the taciturn Leon is less than cooperative. With his mantra of “I must work,” he avoids all recreational activity and steadfastly refuses to go swimming. Even when he agrees to go down to the beach, he is fully clothed and uncommunicative. 

Felix, very outgoing, introduces himself to the handsome lifeguard, wrongly assuming that he is Nadja’s lover. Soon Devid, the lifeguard, makes their trio a quartet. As the temperature of the group rises, so too does the air outside due to a shift in the winds. Unconcerned, they do not recognize the danger of the approaching fires. 

Petzold, by his own admission, modeled his story on three much admired artforms: the American coming of age saga, the Chekhov story “The House with the Mezzanine” about the neuroses of a struggling writer, and the narrative style of French New Wave director Eric Rohmer (“Pauline at the Beach”). Although all of these elements are present, I’m not sure he succeeds in any of them. There is no coming of age because they are all “of age.” There doesn’t seem to be any kind of awakening or awareness that allows any of them, particularly Leon, to grow with a new found knowledge of life or additional maturity. Eric Rohmer’s style was more actively expositional than we find in this film, with the characters espousing different philosophical views of both the gravity and levity of life  Petzold has shown in his other work that he’s not much for levity, and there’s not much here either. The Chekov? I think he got that right. Despite the beach setting and the outgoing natures of Felix and Nadja, Petzold has concentrated on the neuroses of Leon, a man so self-impressed by his own importance that he spoils everyone else’s good time. 

In a moment of weakness and hubris, Leon allows Nadja to read a draft of his novel. He is horrified and angered when Nadja reveals the shallow vacuousness of his book. He is nothing if not condescending to her, a woman about whom he knows next to nothing. His proffer was designed to seduce her with his generosity, unaware that she might actually have an opinion. Leon has a sense of entitlement that far exceeds his gifts. The assessment of his agent is similar to Nadja. Everywhere around him is the evidence of his narcissism and inability to see what others do, whether beauty, danger or illness. Leon is blind.

A major problem with Petzold’s film is that, unlike Rohmer, he doesn’t seem to have a view to articulate. Leon, his main character, remains a cipher until the end. The hint of romance between him and Nadja is not earned and he has kept us too remote from Felix and Devid for any kind of pay off. Unlike the films of Rohmer, there are no long, deep philosophical discussions between any of the characters.

I have been a huge fan of Petzold in the past. His films have been heavy on allegory, the mermaid myth in “Undine,” and metaphor, the totalitarian conquest in “Transit.” I’m at a loss as to the possible allegory and/or metaphor that he is trying to express in “Afire” because the only fire I see is in the forest and not in the theoretical relationship of Nadja and Leon. Petzold sees this as a love story between Nadja and Leon, but it is an unconvincing one. Leon, unattractive and very unappealing both physically and intellectually, believes his worth is more than that of others. He’s got a reckoning coming. Talented, he must learn that he is not more than the sum of his parts, he’s not even the sum of his parts. Dispassionate all the way, it is difficult to bond with any of the characters, although one comes closest with Nadja.

Thomas Schubert as Leon and Paula Beer as Nadja. Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films.

Thomas Schubert, Leon, is given little depth and character development. Throughout almost the entire film, he is unsympathetic, self impressed and shallow. He never seemed to find a way out of his superficiality and one- note sanctimony.

Langston Uibel as Felix is best at comic relief, although he shows depth when explaining his art project to anyone willing to listen; of course that isn’t Leon. In many ways, he is the bridge between the characters. Enno Trebs as Devid is little more than eye candy and that’s a shame. In the small but pivotal role of Leon’s editor Helmut, Matthias Brandt brings dimension where previously there was none. His insights and the nuance he brings to what ordinarily would have been an expositional role open up the film, allowing Leon to see the light that Nadja has been attempting to shine on him. Helmut actively changes the direction of the narrative and it is Brandt’s sympathetic demeanor, leading with his eyes, that makes that happen at the end.

Paula Beer, the star of two of Petzold’s better films, “Transit” and “Undine,” does an outstanding job in a role that she makes believable through her inherent empathy. She is the most fully developed character but much of that may come from her ability to transcend the material. Beautiful, but it is her intelligence that leads this story. There is much more to her Nadja than meets the eye; something we know instantly but that Leon is incapable of seeing. Paula Beer is an actor of enormous depth and range and she brings it all to “Afire,” making it more believable than it has a right to be.

Christian Petzold, who both wrote and directed this film, has had much better success in the past and will probably have more in the future. As a director, he did not pull the nuance out of his lead, Leon. As a writer, he did not give his story enough of a backbone. I’m reasonably sure that he meant the forest fire as a metaphor for something; I’m just not sure what.

Opening July 14 at the Laemmle Royal



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