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Afire

by Glenn Erickson Feb 20, 2024

Aka Roter Himmel.  Christian Petzold’s movie wields a big impact on a deceptively modest scale. The problems of a young man sharing a summer house form a self-contained meditation on How To Live. Thomas Schubert’s Leon is an insufferable jerk who can’t understand why he feels so alienated from others. One of his tolerant housemates is Nadja (Paula Beer), the kind of bright, positively-oriented person who can change one’s life … if one isn’t so stubbornly self-obsessed. Trouble is coming, in a fiery form. Can Leon be redeemed?  This one grabbed us and didn’t let go.


Afire
Blu-ray
Janus Contemporaries
2023 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Roter Himmel / Street Date February 20, 2024 / Available from Criterion.com / 39.95
Starring: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Jennipher Antoni, Esther Esche.
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Production Designer: Klaus-Dieter Gruber
Art Director: Petra Ringleb
Costume Design: Katharina Ost
Film Editor: Bettina Böhler
Produced by Anton Kaiser, Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber
Written and Directed by
Christian Petzold

The first woman we see in Afire immediately hops on a bicycle, as did the star of Christian Petzold’s Barbara, a favorite that hooked us on the German director’s work. But his movie couldn’t be more different. Now we really need to backtrack and find Petzold’s 2018 picture Transit.

Both Barbara and Petzold’s Phoenix are heavily plotted thrillers and attached to specific historical situations. Afire is more like an Eric Rohmer picture –it begins as a casual character study and tightens into an involving drama of personal relations. The original German title Roter Himmel means ‘Red Sky’ with the added implication that a storm is coming. Petzold’s show doesn’t drop mechanical hints that something terrible is going to happen — yet we become very concerned for these young Germans.

In place of characters in extraordinary circumstances, Afire features a fairly ordinary person with social misalignment issues, who poisons his personal interactions with a negative attitude. In his featurette interview, director Petzold explains that this leading character is partly autobiographical. Events build to a dramatic crisis, yet the movie sticks with its insightful, positive character study.

 

We analyze older movies in detail, but as Afire is new we’ll try this without major spoilers.

A trip to the Baltic seashore soon turns sour for Leon (Thomas Schubert), a young author convinced that his second book is no good. Leon is the guest of Felix (Langston Uibel), who has a summer house. After Felix’s car breaks down, they must hike for an hour carrying their luggage. Then they discover that Felix’s mother also gave a young woman permission to use the house. Nadja (Paula Beer) doesn’t show herself for a whole day, but her unseen nighttime lovemaking keeps Leon awake.

The house-sharing arrangement could be pleasant, but Leon’s sour attitude colors everything. Unlike the easygoing Felix, Leon reacts negatively to Nadja’s pleasantries. He resents her apparent boyfriend Devid (Enno Trebs), a lifeguard. Leon turns down opportunities to socialize insisting that he must attend to his unfinished book. His publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt of Babylon Berlin) has arranged to come out for an important discussion, which adds to Leon’s anxiety.

 

Hovering in the background is the threat of a wildfire in the district. The nearby resort town is under a caution alert, and some roads are rumored to have been cut off. The town’s car services are too tied up to retrieve Felix’s car.

It’s unusual for a movie to focus on such an insufferable main character. The unhappy Leon expects everyone else to share his misery. His housemates are outgoing and positive. Devid is a joker, Felix wins over all with his friendly nature, and Nadja turns out to be a radiant gem. All try to include Leon in their activities.

Leon unfortunately considers all of them his enemy. He excuses himself from swimming in a way that implies that the invite is a thoughtless affront. Leon is attracted to Nadja, but he’s boorish with her as well, as if her openly bright and cheerful manner were some kind of ruse. Nadja is one of those optimists determined to bring out the good in those around her. Leon pushes her patience to the limit. He’s too caught up in himself to appreciate anyone. Nadja even asks Leon if he wants to go for a midnight walk. But his grudge against all is too great — he’d rather stew in resentment than connect with anybody.

 

An ‘ingrown ego,’ or Striving Hard to Fail.

We all know somebody like Leon, or (ulp) we may recognize some of him in our own moods. Leon has legitimate worries. He’s an ambitious creative person, and he assume that he has some potential because his publisher believes in him enough to take a car trip to visit in person. but Leon’s insecurity brings out an offensive, self-defeating personality. His default reaction is to lash out at those around him for not placing his hidden needs first on their list of priorities.

Leon’s not stupid, just misaligned. He berates himself for returning Nadja’s honest solicitude with veiled hostility. He doesn’t let his housemates know what he needs for Helmut’s visit, and then becomes furious when his housemates greet and entertain the interesting publisher, ‘ruining’ Leon’s crucial meet-up.

Leon also can’t handle the fact that, among these open-minded moderns, anybody can sleep with anybody if they so choose. Nadja’s bedmates are her own business, but Leon behaves as if some sort of a personal rejection is involved. When an additional relationship surfaces, Leon is confused even further.

 

Leon’s self-absorption blinds him to the riches of other people. He thoughtlessly alienates a hotel manager and a store cashier. Helmut is present for only a few hours, but his interest in his new acquaintences could be the beginning of strong relationships. Leon is shocked to discover that his first impression of Nadja is completely wrong, and based on his own prejudices. He reacts by accusing Nadja of purposely undermining him. He’s an emotional wreck.

How to alienate people without even trying.

Felix and Devid continue to be open and friendly. Helmut seems committed to helping writers ‘find themselves;’ he’s incredibly tolerant of Leon. We experience most things through Leon. The direction frequently shows him observing his housemates from afar, or through a window. He’s always the outsider. Leon first sees Nadja at a medium distance. He peeks at Nadja instead of engaging with her.

Nadja is honestly transparent in her emotions. repeatedly tests Leon’s self-defeating crust, hoping that the dolt will have some kind of breakthrough. A woman you desire invites you on a midnight walk in the woods — in her pajamas — and you beg off?  It’s time to reassess your entire program.

 

Afire is a mini-Disaster Movie that doesn’t allow the disaster to take over. Our unease grows because it doesn’t follow a conventional thriller format. A fire emergency comes along just as Devid is helping Felix retrieve his car, and just as another of the houseguests is hit by an unexpected health issue. Will Leon just make more excuses?  Will he realize that some things are bigger than himself?

Were impressed by how well the production is scaled to its characters. The house we see was apparently built for the movie. Christian Petzold explains that Afire was a ‘pandemic production’ that replaced a more complicated project, yet it is no less involving than were his previous thrillers. His leading actress Paula Beer lobbied for a role that didn’t require so much suffering.

But Afire does have some distressing scenes toward the finish. It makes use of strategically-chosen special visuals, starting with a warning in the form of a shower of ash.    A fire is burning in a place where fires are very rare … it affects everything. Forest animals are forced to flee, and driven out into the open. How will Leon react?  Is his basic nature to remain the same?  The final shots give us a hint of this — as before, Leon chooses to observe important ‘relationships’ from afar rather than confront them directly. It’s as if Petzold is attempting to ‘exorcise’ Leon from himself.

 


 

Janus Contemporaries’ Blu-ray of Afire is quite a beautiful item. The handsome show takes good advantage of Western Pomerania, where breezy forests meet the Baltic Sea. These Germans don’t waste the warm summer days and nights — if the sun is out, they’re on the beach. The show makes minimal use of visual effects. The glow of the distant fire is seen in just a few cutaway angles. Some (CGI generated?) wildlife shots are very convincing. Petzold and cameraman Hans Fromm werent satisfied with conventional Day for Night techniques. For night shots with no electric light sources, their unusual approach are dim exposures with low contrast and almost no color.

Petzold mostly uses source music only. The lack of a soundtrack score telling us how to react forces us into the show’s intimate you-are-there situations.

Several production companies are listed for the film. The distributor ‘Sideshow’ shares credit with Janus Films on the disc cover, but the license is from ‘Match Factory.’ The ‘Janus Contemporaries’ logo appears only on the disc’s sales page. Remember Criterion’s Eclipse DVD series?  It hasn’t been around for years. This relatively recent branded line focuses on new features seen on The Criterion Channel.

 

Afire is given one new extra, an excellent interview piece. Speaking in English, director Petzold covers the basics about his interesting picture. He introduces his longtime cameraman-collaborator Hans Fromm, for an additional bit of banter. Petzold explains that he shared some of Leon’s ‘problems’ when he was young and starting out. We hope that the character is exaggerated.

Petzold isn’t afraid to talk about his cinematic inspirations. He mentions the films of Eric Rohmer, particularly the stories about young men not acting on romantic impulses, and having to live with later regrets. Another worthy ‘life philosophy’ feature we think shares similarities with Afire is Mike Leigh’s charming Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) with the transcendent Sally Hawkins. Hawkins’ schoolteacher in that show is more eccentric than Paula Beer’s Nadja, but they both share a keen interest in other people, and an intensely positive outlook.

Leon’s brief sojourn at Felix’s summer house feels constructive despite some of the drastic things that happen. The message for young people is to not ignore the opportunities that come along. Nothing in life is guaranteed. If you meet a smiling young lady selling ice cream — don’t assume anything about her.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Afire
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Interview featurette Meet the Filmmakers with director Christian Petzold
Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 17, 2024
(7080afire)
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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Walter Peterson

This is playing on the Criterion Channel.

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