By Leonardo Goi
Christian Petzold, Germany, Janus Films/Sideshow
It starts and ends with the same song. Long before Christian Petzold’s Afire lives up to the incendiary promise of its title, we hear the sultry, entrancing “In My Mind,” by the Viennese siblings band Wallners, lulling the film into a dreamlike bliss. Petzold’s cinema is known for its sparing use of music, which makes the rare needle drops feel like ruptures. He employs songs not as background score, but to open his films up, often prodding characters to make their own music, as in the harrowing moment early in Transit (2018), when Franz Rogowski’s Georg is asked to sing a childhood lullaby, or in the devastating final scene of Phoenix (2014), when Nina Hoss croons “Speak Low” and the words sets her free. “Music should not be laid over the film in the cutting room,” Petzold has said of his approach, “It should emerge from the action, from the story itself.” But in Afire, a wry comedy of manners starring four young Germans stranded in a summer house on the Baltic coast, it’s the film that emerges from the song, and the song that dictates its rhythm. “In My Mind” serves as Afire’s anthem and metronome. A reverie of love and happiness conjured by someone who can’t muster the courage to make those dreams true, the track dovetails with the film’s study of a self-absorbed young artist struggling to reconnect with his craft and the world around him.
As we first meet him, Leon (Thomas Schubert), a novelist tinkering with his second book, is being driven by his pal, budding photographer Felix (Langston Uibel), to a summer cottage for a working vacation: Leon must finish the manuscript ahead of a meeting with his editor Helmut (Matthias Brandt), while Felix has an art school application portfolio to mull over. Yet the house is already occupied by Nadja (Paula Beer), an unexpected guest and young literary scholar who spends her days peddling ice cream in the nearby village and her nights loudly fucking local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) in the room next door. The double intrusion matters little to the extroverted Felix, who’s beyond happy to share the same roof, especially as Devid starts flirting with him as well. But it’s an affront to the more guarded and insecure Leon, who retaliates by pushing away his old pal and shunning the new acquaintances, all while pretending to work on a novel he secretly fears isn’t that great. As tensions between Leon and the others begin to simmer, forest fires loom on the edge of town, portending apocalypse.
The second installment, following 2020’s water-themed Undine, of a trilogy based on the elements, Afire is an unflinching vivisection of an artist who has lost touch with his craft and has chosen to turn writing into a shield from the world. At many times throughout the film, life becomes literature, and the young novelist pulls back, as it were, to narrate the events he witnesses to himself. Crucially, Petzold views that distancing as both a consolation and a threat. It isn’t writer’s block that Leon is grappling with, strictly speaking, but a much larger existential impasse, an inability to experience life without numbing himself to its most discomfiting sides. By the time “In My Mind” echoes again halfway through—a nighttime scene of Felix, Nadja, and Devid playing a game of badminton, while Leon watches from his bedroom as the neon-lit rackets light up the garden—the song has become a kind of dare. Where other filmmakers tend to keep pop at an arm’s length, engaging with the genre mostly to signpost bygone eras, Petzold turns to it as a source of wonder and epiphany. Here, “In My Mind”—with its promises of future romance (“Love’s gonna make us, gonna make us blind”) and bliss (“We’ll be living in a life just right”)—becomes an invitation for Leon to embrace self-abandonment, to fully engage with emotions as unsettling as shame and love. He doesn’t listen.
But Afire does. The Wallners’ woozy, loopy reverie is woven into its fabric. The film teems with rhythmic repetitions, both aural (tennis balls bouncing, people humping each night behind wafer-thin walls, airplanes and helicopters hovering above the house) and visual (characters moving across the same, recurrent settings: the garden, kitchen, pergola, beach). Petzold depicts summer as a dilation of time and space, and everything in Afire combines to amplify that sun-dappled endlessness. Save for two or three jarring jump cuts, Bettina Böhler’s editing carries the film at an unhurried pace, while Hans Fromm’s cinematography, toggling between sun-scorched colors and day for night effects, blurs our sense of time: nights in Afire are never fully dark, and days seem to stretch on forever, as if the story unfurled in the same continuum.
Afire's script juxtaposes this stasis with thrilling, scorching exchanges. The film is a stark departure from the mythical terrain of Undine or the hauntological anachronism of Transit. History is here only vaguely alluded to—chiefly via a couple of jokes on the GDR and misspelled names. Yet Leon and his compatriots still exist, like so many of Petzold’s drifters, “in the cut”—marooned in liminal spaces that hark back to the waystations of the director’s previous works—and Afire shares with its predecessor the same concern with love’s destructive power. It’s the deceptively light touch that sets it apart from the rest of Petzold’s oeuvre. For all the melancholia Leon radiates, Afire may well be the director’s funniest: the film relishes in skewering its callow subject’s insecurities, even as it never fully demolishes him. Dinner conversations swell into torture scenes, especially after Nadja transforms from the object of Leon’s desire into a brutally honest judge of his creative endeavor. (Among the things Afire nails is the unbearable angst of having someone read your work and waiting for their verdict—a beautiful scene that echoes a similar passage in Terence Davies’s Benediction). Schubert is magnetic; even at his sulkiest, his Leon emits a static, tempestuous mix of anxiety and anger. But the film’s center belongs to Beer. Over dinner one night, Nadja recites a poem by Heinrich Heine, “The Asra,” about the titular Yemeni tribe, who “perish when they love.” It’s a line that sums up Leon’s and Afire’s central concern: how, and if, one can ever survive an all-consuming passion—for oneself, for another, or for one’s own craft.
In an eye-opening chat with Luise Mörke and Tobias Rosen, over at MUBI Notebook, Petzold confessed he’d originally envisioned his trilogy’s second chapter as the story of a fireman, and abandoned it once he came down with COVID. He spent his convalescence watching Rohmer films, which led him to explore the “summer movie genre,” and eventually turn the project into an éducation sentimentale. Afire brings that journey back to Heine’s poem. To grow up—to fully mature, that is, as a person and a writer—the young man must first learn to embrace failure, to acknowledge destruction, in love, life, and art, as a regenerative force. By the time Matthias Brandt’s voice echoes off-screen, reading the last words of the book Leon will end up writing, Afire has conjured something electrifying. It’s a portrait of an artist who no longer uses his craft as a barrier but a permeable skin: a means of communing with the world.