Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

By Diane Carson

It takes mere minutes to settle into German writer/director Christian Petzold’s “Afire,” the title suggesting its incendiary depths. These develop through the interactions of Leon, Felix, Nadja, and Devid, the four sharing photographer Felix’s holiday retreat near Germany’s Baltic Sea. Leon and Felix believed they’d be alone to work, Leon on his uninspired second novel, badly titled “Club Sandwich.”

However, Nadja and Devid have already moved in. Nadja, an insightful literary scholar, describes herself as an ice-cream seller. Devid is the local rescue swimmer, aka lifeguard. The setup sounds trite. Its development will be anything but as a repressed, taciturn, voyeuristic Leon observes, resists inclusion, and scowls—a joyless presence. As the film begins, Leon and Felix travel by car to the holiday home, their car breakdown signaling trouble to come amplified by a nearby forest fire. But, quite brilliantly, the action remains primarily interior, Leon struggling with his insecurity and fear of rejection from his publisher who will arrive later.

In press notes, director Petzold explains that a Chekov short story and Éric Rohmer films prompted him “to examine the neuroses of a struggling artist,” which Leon convincingly represents. Petzold adds that “Leon’s difficulties in breaking free from emotional isolation stems from his own experience as a burgeoning academic, when he would bury himself in his studies rather than have fun with friends.” On target, Leon excuses himself with, “My work won’t permit it.” Apprehensive but attracted to Nadja, Leon guardedly studies her, unnerved by Nadja’s honesty .

The symbolic setting, a clearing surrounded by woods, enhances the dreamlike atmosphere. Cinematographer Hans Fromm masterfully frames characters as they watch, often surreptitiously, through windows. The actors’ “dance of looks,” as Petzold describes it, exquisitely communicates depths of emotion nonverbally more than verbally. The surprising conclusion makes its own existential statement. Already on my Top Ten for 2023, winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, in German with English subtitles, “Afire” screens at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, August 4, through Thursday, August 17, at 7:30 each of those evenings. For more information, you may visit the film series website.

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