Four people are confined to a seaside house in the German filmmaker's quietly apocalyptic mystery about artistic anxiety
“Writing isn’t work,” says Felix (Langston Uibel) to the unconfident Leon (Thomas Schubert). Cooking, cleaning, fixing the leak in the roof – that’s work, he suggests. Felix, an aspiring photographer, may be doing himself dirty in the process, but he speaks to a wider sense of creative anxiety in Christian Petzold’s latest slow-burn mystery-drama Afire. This is ultimately a film about the purpose of creativity in an uncertain, chaotic world, yet handled with surprising comic grace and a light touch.
The two have made it to a small seaside house in the north of Germany – Leon to finish writing his book, Felix to finish his art school portfolio. It's here, though, that they find an unwanted guest in Nadja (Paula Beer), a distant family friend with a penchant for late-night loud sex with local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs). The foursome engage with each other, at first tetchily, though gradually to warmer effect, though Leon keeps his guard up at all times, often coming across as narcissistic and self-centred.
In the distance are news stories about nearby wildfires spiralling out of control. One night, the four wake up and look to the sky – the wash of night blues turns orange. Petzold has long had a knack for infusing his dramas with a strange, otherwordly effect and Afire is no different. This apocalypse, creeping along gently in the background, barely affects our characters until it is at their doorstep. Until then, there’s plenty of time for sex and meaningless arguments.
Much of the focus is on Leon: as played by Schubert, he’s a schlubby boy with a streak of cynicism, undercut by the sunny optimism of those around him. Surrounded by three conventionally good-looking people, he clearly struggles with body confidence, and Petzold makes clear that Leon has unrequited sexual desires for his friend Felix (made all the more galling for him when Felix starts sleeping with Devid).
The streak of bisexuality running through the film is emblematic of a wider theme here about desire, control, and self-confidence. Leon seems obsessed with total control in his work, and becomes sensitive and selfish when things don’t go this way. To this end, Schubert has a whole army of slightly frustrated gazes, capable of suggesting desire, arrogance or confusion from one cut to another, often rendered to brilliant comic effect (this is certainly Petzold’s funniest work). The rest of the cast are equally brilliant (particularly Paula Beer), suggesting an easy chemistry between the group, and a comfort in the essential chaos of youth that Leon seems incapable of comprehending.
In its final scenes, Afire returns once more to climate phenomena: offset against the mass destruction of the forest is bioluminescent algae in the sea. Elsewhere, a wild boar on fire, streaking through the forest, and for another character the lurking spectre of cancer. Leon suffers from bruising knocks to his ego, but while the film is sympathetic, it's clear his work is not all that important in the grand scheme of things: “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Petzold seems to be saying, “you’re going to die anyway.” Afire is a gorgeous, swooning drama with a clear sense of purpose when it comes to exploring artistic creation in the face of climate breakdown. Chalk up another victory for one of Germany’s finest directors.
Afire was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch