Vacation goes from bad to worse in Afire
A summer vacation by the seashore doesn’t seem to be working out for the two men in Christian Petzold’s new film Afire. Leon (Thomas Schubert) and his friend Felix (Langston Uibel), who give every impression of being a couple, are all set for a short stay at a borrowed house near the Baltic Sea coast in Northern Germany.
Pudgy, grumpy Leon intends to sit in the backyard and work on his novel, while Felix has vague plans to shape up his new photo essay. Leon’s most recent fiction, a character study of someone suspiciously like himself, is titled Club Sandwich. Felix’s photos are shots of people staring out at the sea, although he’s a little undecided about the point of view: Should they be over-the-shoulder or straight-on frontal portraits?
Before the pair arrives at the summer place, there are already complications. Their car breaks down a few miles from their destination and needs to be repaired. The forest they walk through to their house is full of eerie sounds. Once housed, Felix discovers the roof leaks. Most irksome of all, the house has another invited guest they weren’t informed about, a young woman named Nadja (Paula Beer, from Never Look Away and writer-director Petzold’s earlier Undine). During the day Nadja operates an ice cream shop in the nearby town; at night she keeps the boys awake with the sounds of her lovemaking with Devid (Enno Trebs), the lifeguard at the beach.
Afire belongs to that subgenre of character studies that charts the foibles of educated, vaguely neurotic, contemporary urban people and how they relate to each other. Petzold’s 2012 drama, Barbara, observes a doctor (Nina Hoss) from the former East Germany and the ups and downs of her life in a changing world. Afire takes a slightly more humorous approach to a slightly less stressful situation—less stressful, that is, if we discount the raging wildfire that threatens the setting, getting closer by the day. In addition to all that, Leon is dreading the visit from his publisher (Matthias Brandt), whom the frustrated novelist suspects is not particularly enthused about the new novel. As if poor Leon doesn’t have enough to worry about.
More than one reviewer has compared Afire to filmmaker Eric Rohmer’s droll, yet meaningful, group portraits of dissatisfied, yet charming, moderns trying, most often in vain, to have things exactly their way in similar social gatherings—notably on summer vacation, as in Pauline at the Beach (1983) or Le rayon vert (1986). But Petzold is not Rohmer. Where the Frenchman gravitates unerringly to affairs of the heart, the German Petzold probes his characters for deeper, ostensibly darker emotional responses, in this case to a looming natural disaster that echoes their personal troubles. Laughs and flirtatious games come easily to Rohmer’s vacationers; for Petzold’s people, especially Leon, life is more of a challenge.
So preoccupied is Leon that he balks at even the least demanding, most harmless social interactions, like going to the beach or enjoying alfresco goulash dinners, preferring instead to sulk and snoop around the house. No wonder his buddy Felix seems more interested in the less complicated lifeguard. Even the lighthearted Nadja, repeatedly rebuffed, starts to keep her distance. Turns out Nadja-the-ice-cream-cone-server is a serious student of Heinrich Heine; when she and Helmut hit it off discussing that 18th-century poet, jealous Leon feels all the more marginalized.
While the characters are sorting each other out, the fire creeps ever closer, lighting up the sky with a smoky red glow, and wild boars flee through the woods. Something’s got to give. Petzold’s characters are not adventurous types who form fire brigades to battle the disaster. Their concerns have more to do with the 21st-century human emotional condition. And Afire treats them like rare specimens to be studied with a guarded affection. Art-house audiences will likely share his enthusiasm, every bit as cautiously.