Petzold’s Berlinale Grand Jury Prize winner, about a group of friends and strangers at a holiday house as a forest fire blazes many miles away, is a strong, terrifically scripted and effortless portrayal of human relationships under scrutiny and pretence.
Dir. Christian Petzold
2023 | Germany | Drama | 103 min | 1.85:1 | German
Not rated – likely to be M18 for some homosexual references and coarse language
Cast: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt
Plot: A group of friends in a holiday home by the Baltic Sea where emotions run high as the parched forest around them catches fire.
Awards: Won Silver Bear – Grand Jury Prize (Berlinale)
International Sales: The Match Factory
Subject Matter: Moderate – Friends & Strangers; Human Scrutiny & Pretence
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Afire is Christian Petzold’s new film, one that landed him the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale, a festival where six of his previous works first premiered.
Some might find Afire to be Petzold-lite and more conversational than usual, but I think it is one of his best films for quite some time, perhaps since 2014’s Phoenix.
A group of friends and strangers are at a holiday house as a forest fire blazes many miles away. It is just about far enough to be considered non-threatening, but anyone with an idea of how such ‘devices of forebodence’ play out cinematically would know that the fire is a kind of Chekov’s gun.
While one might initially mistake it to be an environmental catastrophe-type film, Afire is more about what burns within the mind, body and soul.
Red mists of anger, chronic frustration, a sense of inadequateness, and the inability to rejuvenate are symptoms that befall Leon, an aspiring writer who must face an abject reality.
“The sun in June can really burn.”
Afire is largely told from his point-of-view as Petzold gives us a terrifically-scripted drama with some sprinkles of comedy that are mostly drawn from situations of social embarrassment.
The German auteur effortlessly portrays human relationships under scrutiny and pretence—and the finest sequences in Afire are as simple as the quartet (and later, quintet) of characters talking about their projects, jobs and intellectual pursuits. So utterly compelling and real.
Part of this quintet is Petzold’s more recent muse, Paula Beer, who plays Nadja, who is unexpectedly residing in the house when Leon and his good friend, Felix, pop by for a work-cation.
There is a bit of Francois Ozon and Olivier Assayas in Afire but leave it to Petzold to give us a final act that surprises with its emotionality, not least using the late Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘andata’ (from his 2017 album, ‘async’) in the most delicate way imaginable.