Straying far away from his political inclination in the masterful ‘Phoenix,’ or the romantic fantasy of ‘Undine,’ German auteur Christian Petzold works with a more contemporary setting for his latest ‘Afire.’ Set almost entirely in a vacation home near the Baltic Sea, the Silver Bear Winner of this year’s Berlinale is a story of writer Leon (Thomas Schubert).

He and his photographer friend Felix (Langston Uibel) are heading to the latter’s vacation home when their car dies down. To make matters worse, when the two eventually arrive at the home, an unwanted guest named Nadja (Paula Beer) has taken up the bigger room, and Leon, who was with the expectation of have some peace and quiet to complete the third act of his novel is greatly irritated. 

But these latest developments in Leon’s life are not the reason for his irritation. Petzold makes sure that we don’t know anything about his life before the vacation starts, allowing us to judge this character from the word go. To put it simply – he is an entitled jerk and a serial procrastinator like most of us, so there’s a sense of connection there, in spite of the unlikeability of his character. Felix is there with him to find a subject for his art-school portfolio and bring some kind of finality to it. However, unlike Leon, he is more of an open book who believes in letting the moments decide things for himself. 

Leon is trying to work out an interesting ending for his second novel, ‘ Club Sandwich’, as he awaits his publisher to come in and give him a positive heads-up. He himself doesn’t like how the novel is shaping up, but if anyone except him points it out, it erupts smugness in him. This leads to some cheeky, funny moments in this character study that can be incredibly cruel and sad in equal measure.

A still from Afire (2023).

Petzold, who, in a way, has accepted Paula Beer as his new muse after doing a good number of projects with the brilliant Nina Hoss, allows the character Nadja to be an unfiltered canvas that someone like Leon needs in order to navigate through his self-imposed narcissism. However, the mystery to her is as fleeting to Leon as it is to the audience. While this makes the character arc more interesting, it also leaves a lot of slight clutter that doesn’t necessarily allow you to ponder. 

Set over a period of a few days as forest fires engulf the region around them, Afire is uplifted to greatness by Thomas Schubert’s incredible performance. Playing a jerk is not easy, but playing one that doesn’t have any redeeming quality is as difficult as playing a villians who wants to take over the world. Schubert insists on keeping a self-destructive face out for Leon. The perpetually tired writer is never able to do ‘his work.’ He often just randomly naps in places, and this vulnerability makes him endearing, in spite of the lava that pours out of him when he is around people. 

The desire he has for Nadja is shrouded in secrecy. Almost as if even he isn’t aware that he has a certain attraction for her. However, Petzold cleverly plots the character of lifeguard David (Tenno Trebs) to allow us leeway. He makes sure that we become a part of this narrative that pays homage to Eric Rohmer and other Eupeon movies set in vacation homes. However, what sets it apart is its complex elements of Fire and Water that let us decide what these characters want, what they need from each other, and where they will go from here. This alone makes Afire an absorbing tour-de-force.

Read More: 10 Must-See Movies in July 2023 (Theatres)

Afire (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Afire (2023) Movie Cast: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Enno Trebs
Where to watch Afire

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