This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Afire being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Being a writer can be a humbling piece of business. Every creative has a different temperature, ritual, style of paper and pen, or time of day conducive to starting – but even beginning could turn into an existential crisis. Let’s not get into all the external factors that keep writers up at night. At least for Leon (Thomas Schubert), the Baltic Sea getaway was supposed to be a safe haven to dive into completing his next novel, “Club Sandwich.” Writer/director Christian Petzold places some apt annoyances in his way during Afire.
Leon travels with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) when they notice that something is wrong with the car they’re driving, and both have to walk miles to a vacation home Leon’s mother owns. But, much to their surprise, somebody has already occupied the small cottage – a woman named Nadja (Paula Beer), who has a free-spirit and friendly attitude. From the start, everything bothers Leon – from the benches outside that seem to be plagued with mosquitos to hearing the sounds of Nadja’s sexual adventures through the bedroom wall. While Leon is mired in his ways, Felix does things differently as a photographer looking to complete his portfolio at art school.
A freeness exists in Felix and all the people around Leon who he can’t tap into somehow. It’s almost as if he’s wound too tightly to tap into the beauty of life around him. When Felix tells his portrait idea and that his motivation is simply water, Leon quickly shoots it down. As Nadja’s non-exclusive lover Devid (Enno Trebs) comes to dinner and tells everybody an amusing story, Leon’s grumpiness takes over and sours plans. Petzold is not presenting his character as some infallible jerk – at times, it’s right on the nose and quite the opposite, with a physical metaphor to go along with it.
Over in the corner of the woods, a raging forest fire slowly encroaches upon the house and matches Leon’s anxiety about finishing his following line of work. His editor is coming to the house in a few days to discuss it. This pressure causes him to miss out on all the fun Nadja, Felix, and Devid have together through these summer days. When Felix and Devid split off in their section of love, Petzold leaves some space for Leon and Nadja to investigate what a relationship could be between them possibly.
Much of Afire’s emotional effectiveness draws from the slower, deliberative pace that both characters venture onto once the film settles into their story. Schubert’s portrayal of Leon comes into full focus once we get into the depths of his insecurities. Once, he let a cleaning lady read something of his, and her assessment was less than stellar. There’s a double sense of anxiety when Nadja asks to see his latest manuscript. What if it happens to be less than up to par also? Not only is that a risk, but it also comes with a potential love interest seeing it.
Artists are particularly cagey about who can critique their work, and it’s at a fever pitch with Leon. However, completing the work requires an active participant in your life to engineer the stories. For much of Afire, Leon’s purpose is steeped in being in suspension – observing everybody else with an air of superiority. It’s probably why Petzold chooses a rather abrupt and heartbreaking turn in the third act that will give viewers a varying degree of satisfaction.
Even as the plot is a slow meditation, the impending fire that lingers over yonder feels like time is of the essence. There lies Petzold’s description of the messiness of life and artistry – get too contained with the insecurities of one, and sometimes you end up with nothing.