After Felix (Langston Uibel) and Leon (Thomas Schubert) trudge through the woods to get to Felix’s mom’s summer home by the Baltic Sea, they discover someone is already there. Nadja (Paula Beer, "Transit," "Undine") is the niece of one of his mom’s coworkers, Felix informs Leon, who is put out to learn he’ll now have to share a bedroom. Leon is trying to finish up a novel, but once he spies Nadja, he seems to be perpetually distracted in “Afire.”
Laura's Review: B+
Writer/director Christian Petzold ("Barbara," "Undine") is drawn to people caught between two worlds, but Leon, the protagonist of his latest, is the least literal definition of Petzold’s theme, a writer paralyzed by self-involved self doubt who makes a painful transition into an expanded worldview. If at first the film appears to meander, lazing in summer sunshine, its build will surprise with unexpected emotion, its petulant protagonist finding grace.
After making a fuss about being able to work, Felix points Leon toward an outdoor pergola, but as soon as Felix jaunts off for a swim, all Leon does is goof off, bouncing a ball against the house. He is a serial complainer, annoyed that Wustrow Forest fires 30 miles off are causing inconveniences and moving outside to sleep because of Nadja’s ‘noise.’ That is where he will first notice Devid (Enno Trebs, "The White Ribbon"), the handsome young lifeguard Leon observes leaving the house late in the middle of the night.
Felix, who is also working but actually making progress on a photography portfolio (which Leon is less than supportive of), invites Devid to dinner one night. Relaxing al fresco, Devid tells a tall tale that feeds into Leon’s impression of him despite its punch line and Nadja tells him off for his series of insecure digs against the guest. Leon becomes increasingly agitated as the time approaches for him to meet his publisher, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), and when he goes into town to arrange a hotel room for him, he meets Nadja selling ice cream which he awkwardly turns down. Given a chance to rescue Nadja when she tumbles from her bike, Leon fumbles again, but the increased interactions lead him to offer his book to her to read. When Helmut arrives and is delighted by the assembled company, Leon’s frustrations bubble over just as his bubble is burst, several misconceptions shattered.
Schubert crafts Leon out of a well of insecurity that miraculously garners audience sympathy, something which extends to understanding Nadja’s kind treatment of the blundering young man, her one dose of blunt assessment underscored when Helmut begins reading from Leon’s novel. Petzold wisely keeps us within Leon’s perspective, so, although we have a lot of information at hand, it is easy to be as misdirected, if not as often as he. The filmmaker states in press notes that he was inspired by Éric Rohmer and summertime films where innocence ebbs and futures are seen on the horizon and in this, he has delivered with a shocking climax in which the stunned Leon is able to find poetry, just as his cinematographer Hans Fromm finds it in natural disaster.
It seems dismissive to call “Afire” a coming of age story, a genre frequently embraced by fledgling filmmakers, but Petzold has layered in so much texture, his film is literary, one which concludes with a generously warm coda.
Robin's Review: B
Four friends, old and new, meet at a vacation home in a resort area on the Baltic Sea. Each is there for their own reasons, but their work vacations are put into great danger when a massive wildfire threatens their very existence in “Afire.”
We here in the US have been haunted by, for many years, the specter of our burning forests. But, I think that the concept of such catastrophic blazes and devastation of the land is new, relatively speaking, in Europe. As such, we enter a whole new market for forest fire films.
As we meet our new friends, all seems idyllic. Leon (Thomas Schubert) is a writer who is trying to complete his book. His friend, Felix (Langston Uibel), whose mother owns the summer home, is there to complete his art portfolio. A young woman, Nadja (Paula Beer), Felix’s friend is already there. Keep-to-himself Leon, is perplexed by the free-spirited Nadja and spends most of his time, at first, being aloof.
The reports of the distant fire do not bother the dwellers. After all, there is an off shore breeze keeping the fire from encroaching on their gentle life. Placing their lives in the hands of the wind’s direction proves to be tragic and I will leave it at that.
The story is really about the relationships between the players. Slowly, Nadja is able to pull Leon from his aloofness and get him to act human. There is also a handsome lifeguard and Nadja’s lover, Devid (Enno Trebs), who becomes a member of the quartet and close to Felix.
The focus of the film is Leon’s often-distracted writing and the arrival of his editor, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), that will make or break him. Felix, distracted by Devid, neglects his portfolio but gets advice from Helmut. Nadja’s mission, it seems, is to dig into Leon’s ego and tries to humanize him. All the while, and subtly, the fire is steadily approaching despite the confidence in wind direction.
“Afire” has two meanings, both the physical environment and the emotional ones of the players, and it does a good job of dividing your attention between the two.
Sideshow Janus Films opened "Afire" in select theaters on 7/14/23. Click here for local play dates.