August 2, 2023
With international films receiving awards attention more than ever, American audiences are becoming increasingly aware of the auteurs of global cinema, many of which have gone unappreciated for decades. Michael Haneke, Bong Joon-ho, Paweł Pawlikowski, Thomas Vinterberg, and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi are just a few of the names that have become prevalent within the North American cinephile lexicon over the past decade. But one name that has always seemed to elude the bright lights of Western media is German filmmaker Christian Petzold. This streak of unappreciation has become part of his narrative in the United States, with The New York Times running a piece on how he “may be the best German filmmaker you’ve never heard of.”
As one of the leading figures in the Berlin School movement within German independent cinema, Petzold’s films often explore themes of identity, displacement, and the impact of German national history on personal lives. He’s been a staple of his native Berlin International Film Festival, winning awards for best director in 2012 for Barbara and the FIPRESCI Prize in 2020 for Undine. His latest feature, Afire, played at the festival, winning the Silver Bear grand jury prize.
While on the surface it may seem that Afire has less to do with Germany’s past compared to Petzold’s earlier works of Phoenix or Transit, it still finds a way to interweave the ramifications of National Socialism on German culture, specifically its works of literature and poetry. The story begins with Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel) on their way to Felix’s summer house to work on their artistic endeavors. Leon is an author who’s been published once before and is struggling to put the finishing touches on his follow-up manuscript. Felix is a photographer trying to assemble a portfolio to submit to an art school.
However, the promise of solitude is interrupted by the introduction of additional parties: Nadja (Paula Beer) and Devid (Enno Trebs). It turns out Felix’s mom double-booked the house for the weekend, much to Leon’s displeasure as he endlessly lectures about the importance of his writing and process. But there’s also one other thing, which is the raging forest fires going on not too far away. The evening sky is red (hence the German title translating to “Red Sky”) and the warning signs are everywhere, yet these characters deny the danger and press on.
Petzold took inspiration from Anton Chekhov for this summer story. Besides Leon and Felix, all of these people are new to each other, prompting discovery and conflict around certain behaviors and actions. But Petzold never finds something unique to say in this story, mostly due to the characters lacking enough interest to make up for their unlikeability. Leon continually bemoans about his past and present, eventually learning the predictable lesson of self-humility.
Still, the performances are quite nice, especially Paula Beer, whose red dress symbolizes her radiance. She’s the sunshine that breaks through Leon’s dark clouds. It’s a slight shame that Petzold rarely lets her blossom out of that subservient role. There’s a great fire going on within the story, but nothing seems to crackle off the screen.