News about a forest fire threatens the summer retreat in the Baltic coastline where German director Christian Petzold’s ravishing new film Afire is set. Yet, this piece of information means little to Leon (Thomas Schubert), who is suffering from writer’s block while trying to revise his second novel Club Sandwich. Leon makes unreasonable demands for the people in the summer house, which includes his photographer friend Felix (Langston Uibel), and the free-spirited Nadja (Paula Beer), who owns the place. With a disarming sleight of hand, Petzold invites his viewers to settle down with the shifting dynamics between these three people, and steadily pokes at darker, more urgent questions on creative drive and mortality. (Also read: The World is Family review: History begins at home in Anand Patwardhan’s stunning new documentary)
Afire, which played at the 12th Dharamshala International Film Festival, is a lot lighter than Petzold’s earlier works, which includes the second world war thriller Transit and the mythic romance of Undine. Yet, this is very much a Petzold film, unfolding with a breezy yet self-aware narrative rhythm. Everything angers Leon, and Petzold lets him feel left aside- as if the world is always happening somewhere around him, a space he cannot inhabit. So, he disrupts and disagrees with most things. He seeks control over spaces, ideas and above all- nature itself.
Then there is Nadja, who has loud sex in her room. Leon cannot sleep. Next morning, he meets her sex partner, Devid (Enno Trebs), who works as a lifeguard at the beach. Felix establishes a bond with him soon, which makes Leon more insufferable than ever. A dinner table conversation turns sour quickly. Devid’s easy, affable charm makes him hostile. Soon, Leon’s publisher (Matthias Brandt) arrives, and his worst fears become true.
It’s hard to predict the route Petzold takes on from here, which lies hidden somewhere in plain sight. The two dinner sequences, where all the characters share and hide, unearth new details and feel lost, are some of the best directed scenes you will see this entire year. Working with cinematographer Hans Fromm and editor Bettina Böhler, he is able to inject a thrilling undercurrent of expectation and loss in these exchanges- moulding the dynamics within the house in just a glance. Even the selection of a specific track, In My Mind by Wallners, adds electrifying effect to the film’s structure. The performances are restrained and subtle, especially Schubert and Beer, who develop an unassuming chemistry as the film takes shape. Beer’s double reading of Heinrich Heine’s poem The Asra will stay with me quite for some time.
Afire is perhaps also the most deceptively intelligent film about climate change. This is a film that understands how a crisis never feels like a crisis until it’s too close home. The time to react was long ago. In dealing with the artistic ego and the myopia Leon suffers because of his creative insecurities, Petzold cuts a razor-sharp awakening in that brilliant final act. The effect is hypnotizing. Afire leaves you haunted like only the best films can. The world is oblivious to the suffering and destruction we cause each other in the name of power, but see how it still exists. See how it still makes space for new life. Afire rings like a reminder how the most anyone can do in their own capacity is to try and become more patient with ourselves and the people around us.