Scrutinizing a strange love ballet in an atmosphere saturated by ashes and flames approaching in the distance: with Afire (Roter Himmel), German director Christian Petzold, who had previously regaled us with Transit—also with Paula Beer—and Phoenix, plays with fire, our nerves, and our hearts.
Summer, carefree, love… fires and tragedies: This is what Leon will face, while he goes with his friend Felix to a Baltic holiday home. Leon is not really in the mood: A young author whose first novel was a surprise success, he sweats out the writing of the second. Lonely, grumpy, uncomfortable in his skin, he hopes to find peace here by the sea, but it won’t happen. Because as soon as they arrive, he finds that they are not alone. The house is also occupied by the beautiful Nadja who, before Leon meets her, will be heard by the noise of her romps with a local lifeguard, Devid. Soon, all this little world gently flirts, under the exasperated gaze of Leon, annoyed by the banter that hinders his concentration, and increasingly worried by seeing the sky blush around them. Because uncontrolled fires threaten, and soon they will cause a tragedy that will have consequences for the whole small group….
We obviously think of Eric Rohmer, and this is no coincidence: when Christian Petzold caught Covid three years ago during a visit to Paris, his French distributor entrusted him with the complete DVD collection of the French director. But, intelligent filmmaker that he is, Petzold does not imitate, does not copy; he simply plays the reference with great subtlety, to finally give birth to a very personal work, between humor, romance, and drama. This, thanks to a succession of skillful touches, like attaching ourselves to a rather detestable, scowling main character, who at each attempt to soften sinks a little more. And making us fall in love with the beautiful Paula Beer without seeing her at first, just by her voice and her mysterious presence. Invisible but omnipresent, like those fires that impact the plot so much. Another bold step is to entrust the role of Leon, who does not like the sea and refuses to swim there, to Thomas Schubert, who became known in the role of… a swimmer (New Breath in 2011).
But the most beautiful accomplishment of this deeply human feature film is to employ a style of romantic banter with an infinite summer sweetness, to make us understand that its true subject is about the torments of artistic creation, how it can be sublime and painful. With Afire, unquestionably his best film, Christian Petzold hits the bullseye, right in the heart.
Edited by Robert Horton
© FIPRESCI 2023