by George Wolf
Right from the opening minutes of Afire, we know that Leon (Thomas Schubert) isn’t very perceptive. But if you know anything about writer/director Christian Petzold, then you know Leon’s plight is only a means to a deeply resonate end.
Leon and his friend Felix (Langston UIbel) have come to a vacation home by the Baltic Sea for a working holiday. Leon must put the final touches on his latest book before a meeting with his publisher, while Felix needs to ready his photo portfolio for art school.
But the boys find they are not alone on the spacious property. Nadja (Petzold favorite Paula Beer) is staying there as well, and keeping Leon awake via vocal late night trysts with Devid (Enno Tebbs), a lifeguard at the nearby beach.
So the three become friends, while Leon keeps to spying from a distance and declining all offers of fun or relaxation because “work won’t allow it.”
Except, Leon’s never really working. He spends the days as the pooper of this party, too self-absorbed to notice anything outside of his own sad sack, not even the increasing threat of nearby wildfires.
For a time, Petzold (Transit, Undine, Phoenix) crafts an amusing dramedy of awkwardness, one that’s noticeably lighter than his usual fare. But as Leon’s publisher (Matthias Brandt) arrives, more personal details are revealed and the fires grow closer, the film’s third act becomes heavy with timely resonance.
A creative life – a fulfilling life – requires participation. Fear of failing is fear of living, and even the deepest heartaches can come to serve a greater purpose. Indeed, the film itself may be Petzold’s answer to unprecedented recent history.
The small ensemble (stellar) and remote location are common traits of a pandemic production. Are the fires here a winking nod to Leon’s blindness to every forest around him, or a more direct metaphor to the worldwide plague?
The film works either way. Petzold excels with characters like these, yearning to break from whatever may be holding them back. Afire finds him working on a smaller, more comedic scale, but never lacking the keen insight we’ve come to expect.