The 73rd edition of Berlinale has been defined by a strong representation of German filmmakers. Filmmakers from the Berlin School brought their latest works, including Christian Petzold, whose Afire has been among the buzziest titles.
Afire was conceived as the second installment in Petzold,s trilogy on love, creativity, and elements, following Undine. The romantic fantasy-drama premiered at the 70th edition of Berlinale. The film´s dominant aspect has been the myth of Undines, an element associated with water.
Afire (original German title is Red Sky), as the title hints, employs a crucial motif of another element that is equally helpful and fatal as water. However, the director averts inspiration from the fairy tale or mythological realm in his latest work and instead turns to a more current approach: re-arranging and redesigning the genre conventions of romantic comedy.
In Petzold's film, two buddies – cranky writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) and free-spirited, budding photographer Felix (Langston Uibel) – arrive at a coastal cottage to work on their creative pursuits.
Leon has to work on the manuscript of his second book. (The novelette's title, Club Sandwich, elicited bursts of laughter and smirks from the festival audience.) Felix needs to prepare a portfolio of photographs for his art school application. While both are already on deadline, Felix is much more relaxed and practical.
The plan hits its first roadblock when the two artistically-inclined friends find Felix mother's cottage already occupied by a mysterious guest, Nadja (Petzold regular Paula Beer). They come to recognize her only through the sensual moans she produces in the night, scaring away Leon's muses. The budding smug author is getting grumpier by the hour.
Lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs), from the nearby coast, joins the group, to Leon's chagrin. Devid has been the counterpart in the nightly moaning contest with Nadja. The director assembles a party of four to act out relationship games and dynamics against the norms of a mainstream rom-com.
Leon is mesmerized by Nadja, a red-haired, down-to-earth, and extroverted ice cream seller. Felix starts to get preoccupied with the leaking roof and the handsome lifeguard on the premises. And uncontrolled fires start to eat up the landscape surrounding the cottage.
Petzold makes the character of Leon the anti-hero of the story. In contrast to Nadja, Felix, and Devid, who are enjoying a summer vacation, Leon is cranky, self-absorbed, and patronizing; he cannot take life with ease. He becomes the very embodiment of what Germans call walking around with “Kopf in den Arsch”. The tribulations of the young writer do not bother the rest of the party, as he becomes a total buzzkill.
Afire takes the shape of an undisclosed modern adaptation of Moliere's immortal classic The Misanthrope, or the Cantankerous Lover, as the film ultimately turns into a relationship comedy of manners. (The director acknowledges Anton Chekhov's novella Missius as an inspiration.)
However, Petzold portrays Leon as the fool, but not because of uncompromising honesty and idealism, as Moliere depicted Alceste. The misanthropic attitude stems from the young writer´s inability to simply enjoy life, as well as his pathological preoccupation with work and his personal insecurities and anxieties that keep him isolated from others and life. Leon is a neurotic knot.
Thankfully, the director does not devote the entire film to the hapless writer's attempts to proclaim heteronormative infatuation with the redheaded firecracker. In addition to art and love, nature is another driving force in the narrative. The uncompromising destruction of wildfires that leave nothing but scorched earth serves as a potent metaphor for artistic and existential pursuits.
Despite the mainstream appeal of the film, Petzold cleverly balances the literal and figurative imagery. He turns Afire into a cinematic oeuvre surpassing the simple joys of rom-com while simultaneously appealing to arthouse and mainstream audiences. And the director is not afraid of risqué, heartbreaking moments that come crashing down like a ton of bricks in the last act.
Afire weaves a rich emotional variety, from feel-good to cringe to tragic, with a precisely crafted melodrama. In the same manner, the chameleon-like film elegantly shifts from bromance to (hetero- and homo-) romance and tragedy.
Pigeonholing Afire as a romantic film does a huge disservice to it. This is not only due to the complexities Petzold manages to craft. In spite of known genre norms, the German writer-director and the cast enjoy cliché-baiting the audience, so that ready-made romantic stereotypes can be skewered.
Afire is a summer dramedy like no other that offers different shades of tragicomedy and a post-pandemic, refreshing serving of attitude: don't take yourselves so seriously. Even if the world is burning.
Sideshow and Janus Films have acquired Afire for summer theatrical release in the U.S. The film won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize.