Christian Petzold writes & directs a dark comedy about a writer who’s forced to let life get in the way of his creative process.
Spare a thought for the white male writer in your life. Christian Petzold just roasted him so bad they’re beyond saving; just grab a marinade and sides. The enigmatic German formalist lets it all hang down in Afire, his loosest film in many moons, a comedy of ill manners, withheld emotion, and confusing flirtation, and his best film since 2014’s Phoenix.
Featuring a protagonist who may or may not be a stand-in for the director himself and a third act that unseats and complicates everything that preceded it, it finds Petzold in a reflective and melancholy mood, where old symbols and set-ups resurface like a recurring dream. Petzold’s montage, sound design, and thematic concerns have been given heavy workouts over the years, to the point that the softest exhalation or flexing of a muscle from the filmmaker places us unmistakably back in his grip, but Afire is the first of Petzold’s movies made stronger by autobiographical implication. He’s inventing and reinventing at once and the depth of the piece shocks, like a sudden drop off in the sand beneath your feet as you venture further into the ocean.
Leon (Thomas Schubert) is the kind of writer who’s so convinced of people’s condescending view of him that he’ll go miles out of his way to prove it. On his way to a cottage owned by his friend Felix’s (Langston Uibel) family to fix his second novel, trouble immediately starts and gets Leon’s hackles up. The car breaks down so he and Felix have to carry their luggage miles into the woods to get there. Felix goes on ahead at one point and when he returns makes a point of scaring Leon, which results in them tussling on the ground in a scene perfectly split between friendly roughhousing and homoerotic loathing. The look they share says so much, which is good because Leon says so little of what’s actually on his mind.
When they arrive at the cabin they find it already occupied by Nadja (Petzold’s new favorite leading lady Paula Beer), a woman whose chipper attitude and frequent dalliances with a local lifeguard (sorry, rescue swimmer; the difference comes up more than once) named Devid (Enno Trebs, who was one of the little Nazis in The White Ribbon a lifetime ago) drive Leon to distraction. Every time she tries to get Leon to open up or hang out with the trio of much better dispositioned vacationers, Leon turns himself further inward, alienating them on purpose and occasionally by accident. With all this going on, to say nothing of the increasingly dreadful wild fires consuming the forests a few miles down the road, and an impending visit from Leon’s publisher Helmut (frequent Petzold collaborator Matthias Brandt), just how is Leon supposed to concentrate on fixing his dire manuscript?
Christian Petzold’s movies have long relied on the kind of coincidences and conveniences that border on the oneiric. Your hero needs a job that’ll get him into a love triangle? Good news, a drunken opportunist’s car breaks down in front of you. A woman needs a new job moments after being fired? Thankfully the handsome stranger down the hall has let himself into your hotel room to offer you one. These obviously come from a tradition of noir (James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler are clear touchstones) wherein danger always walks right into the inner sanctum of a private investigator or lovesick dreamer. Petzold has never let reality get in the way of a good yarn, nor should he, even if his painstaking, nearly clinical mise en scéne suggests a closer relationship to the real world than his writing ever proffers.
This has occasionally bordered on the outright fantastical, as in his Carnival of Souls remake Yella and his modern mermaid fable Undine. Undine’s admittance of the truly unbelievable was something of a first for Petzold and if I don’t miss my guess he knew he’d run out of ways to transpose his fixations to existing ideas. Undine’s threadbare narrative (not helped by its time being almost evenly split between Paula Beer’s landlocked sea creature and her besotted diver paramour [Franz Rogowski]) hints that Petzold was at least as aware of his well running dry as his critics, because Afire is a movie about a man smarting from the realization that his latest work isn’t up to snuff.
Of course it were as simple as a writer’s block movie, Afire wouldn’t be half as beguiling. Petzold’s movies can be summed up superficially as being about the things hidden from us and the things we hide and Afire brings both motifs into his sharpest focus yet. In his 2001 movie Something To Remind Me or Toter Mann, Nina Hoss asks André Hennicke to describe intimate things to her when he reminds her that he doesn’t even know her name. “You never asked.” Afire is a movie completely defined by the things we forget to ask; about missing the big picture. Leon is so consumed by jealousy at Nadja’s freer life and emotions that he makes himself a miserable companion every chance he gets to punish her and himself.
Spare a thought for the white male writer in your life. Christian Petzold just roasted him so bad they’re beyond saving; just grab a marinade and sides.
He refuses to allow himself to be better known as he’s convinced (with good reason) that Nadja sized him up the minute they met. From his complaints about her loud lovemaking to her constant attempts to include him in her free time, he’s determined to remain mysterious so he might at long last have something to lord over her the way she appears to have everything over him. The trouble is by refusing a glimpse at the less obvious parts of yourself, the obvious ones rise to the surface. When it comes out that Nadja has been hiding her passion from Leon and once more taken the upper hand in their dynamic, Leon has no one to blame for himself because, like Hennicke, he never asked. For a writer he’s one incurious fellow and Petzold is out to make sure he realizes it.
This makes Leon a frustrating but fascinating addition to Petzold’s gallery of sad sacks. We keep looking at Nadja’s attempts to tame Leon’s misanthropic streak though good humor and wondering why she does it, but by the end there comes to be a sort of sense to her infatuation, not least because by the time Leon finally opens up to her it’s concurrent with other shocking developments beyond their control, which renders his emotions as an extension of the disorder of the natural world. Leon converts every glance, laugh, and smile into kindling for the fire raging inside of him. He wants so badly to hear that he’s untalented and unlovable, and the world of beautiful people like Nadja, Felix, and Devid will always reject him out of hand, so he can at last feel like he was right about one thing.
Of course nothing is quite so simple in Petzold’s movies. Leon must live to understand how close he got to what he desires and understand the moment he unmoored himself from a better reality. The looseness of the first act has been the foundation for something deceptively meticulous. Unlike classic Petzold (Yella, Jerichow, Beats Being Dead, Phoenix) Afire has an ending caught between optimism and pessimism and the 400 Blows-quoting final moments leave us deliberately in Petzold’s contemplative purgatory rather than having released us with a definitive gesture.
Like classic Petzold, however, it remains a place you don’t want to leave, no matter how strange and dark and sad it can be. Second chances are the biggest fables of all in Petzold; Afire at long last grants us the possibility that they may exist, and not just in books or movies. When it comes clear who has been telling the story of Afire after all, the coarseness of the social dynamic, the missed opportunities, and the admissions of harm seem not like the work of an author with a cross to bear, but instead like that of someone who sees at long last what it means to be alive.
Afire is now playing in select theaters.