Written and Directed by Christian Petzold.
Starring Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, and Matthias Brandt.
A group of friends in a holiday home by the Baltic Sea where emotions run high as the parched forest around them catches fire.
While pining over an unexpected vacation home third-wheel in writer/director Christian Petzold’s tonally tricky Afire, Leon (Thomas Schubert) ever so slightly comes out of his insecure shell to tell the beautiful, somewhat flirtatious Nadja (Paula Beer) about his manuscript in progress. Naturally, he is delighted that this woman, to who he is clearly attracted, has agreed to read his work, even if the thought is simultaneously sending him into a slight anxiety attack. However, when she gives brutally honest feedback, more or less calling it garbage, he scoffs at her under his breath, questioning what an ice cream stand worker knows about literature.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise when it’s revealed that Nadja has high intelligence to go alongside her looks and sexual openness (she regularly keeps him awake at night while fornicating with a lifeguard she has recently met), but the entire incident is a darkly funny, uncomfortably real moment of how superiority complexes take hold of not just regular writers, but even the ones that know they have no business pounding out words on a keyboard. Leon is the first person to admit his stories suck, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a justifiably critical editor, but upon hearing a gorgeous woman he is increasingly becoming obsessed with take his work down a few notches, suddenly, he is an expert and feels compelled to trash the woman’s opinion that he asked for. Welcome to the mindset of a writer. Or a narcissist. Or perhaps both.
Arriving at the vacation home with his longtime friend Felix (Langston Uibel), an aspiring photographer, Leon spends most of the time passive-aggressively whining that he can’t get any writing done for various reasons that, once again, not only comes from a place of insecurity but a BS justification to his peers for his lack of productivity when he knows the truth deep down inside that the story is not very good. This isn’t to say that he is not meant to be a writer and incapable of writing something of noteworthy quality, just that he takes the honesty he is aware of, pushing it further down so that he can outwardly blame everyone else. So, the fact that this is all wrapped up in a thorny love square only makes matters more complicated and amusing.
However, even while laughing at Afire‘s messy sense of humor, a profound character study of a self-absorbed writer’s life exists. Felix often asks Leon to partake in activities such as visiting the beach, only to be shrugged off in favor of attempting and failing to work on his manuscript. Worse, he takes his frustrations out on the creative juices of others, such as putting down Felix’s idea of photographing individuals gazing into the beach waters. Of course, he becomes more socially active once his crush on Nadja forms, which only heightens as Felix and the previously mentioned lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) begin their own relationship.
Afire follows Leon’s comedy of errors, seemingly juxtaposing them with nearby forest fires closing in. The bigger they become (beautifully captured in the sky at one point by Christian Petzold’s regular cinematographer Hans Fromm), the more Leon seems to be making a disaster of every relationship in his life. There is also a cautionary tale aspect of becoming so lost in writing that one consistently skips out on living a fulfilling life in other areas, a theme that takes hold in a much darker context during its gripping but somewhat contrived third act. And while the locale is warm and inviting, there is a tremendous usage of negative space that ensures viewers are fixated on the layered turns from this small, phenomenal ensemble. Afire is a riveting, breathtaking, character study deftly balancing tones of comedy and complex, serious messaging.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com