There are not many things in this world that are more destructive to the human soul than unfulfilled promises of love. The most recent film that Christian Petzold has directed, titled Afire, takes an original perspective on the topic at hand. The movie combines humor and pathos to tell a narrative about unanticipated meetings and the ultimate perils of being alive.
In Afire, young author Leon (Thomas Schubert) and his buddy Felix (Langston Uibel) run away to a remote cottage in the woods near the Baltic Sea in order to get away from their abusive family. The opportunity to work on his second book, which is a literary endeavor that isn’t going too well for Leon, is one of the main draws of the trip.
Leon is optimistic that he will finish his book and discover the source of the inspiration that eludes him because Felix is required to make a photographic portfolio for his art school application. Leon is confident that he is destined to do great things with his art, and leaving the city means that other people won’t be able to stand in his way while he works to create a masterpiece.
Unfortunately for Leon, life has a tendency of throwing our plans off course, and even before they arrive home, the two friends’ journey is plagued by unplanned side trips. The presence of Nadja (Paula Beer), whom Felix’s mother asked to remain in the family residence without informing her son, is the most significant challenge for Leon as he attempts to get some work done. As a result, instead of finding calm and serenity, Leon is met by the sounds of noisy sex, a dirty kitchen, and the woman’s obviously chaotic manner of living.
The story of Afire centers around Leon’s egocentric character, as he puts his job ahead of any and all simple pleasures he may discover during his vacation. In the meanwhile, Felix finds new methods to produce art by just unwinding and focusing on what is happening in the here and now. The presence of Nadja and Devid, Felix’s boyfriend, makes an already unsettling lack of dedication to work even more evident (Enno Trebs).
The four young adults soon begin to share the same ceiling, which leads to hilarious situations caused by Leon’s unremediable grumpiness and everyone else’s desire to embrace the joys of sharing a meal or taking a walk on the beach. Eventually, the four young adults move into the same apartment together.
To Leon’s dismay, Felix and his new pals all appear to be happier and more successful than the author. Yet, rather than taking responsibility for his own actions, he is adamant about pointing the finger at other people for all of the interruptions that keep coming in the way of his work. Hence, at its foundation, Afire is all about this social anxiety that keeps us from grabbing the day because of the pressure of a future grandeur that never comes. And in the case of Leon, that also means closing his heart to the prospect of love, which is the saddest of all possible endings.
It is not a coincidence that the deadly forest fires that threaten to force everyone out of their shelter are the inspiration for the name Afire. The fire casts a crimson light into the sky, serving as a continual reminder that all that people hold dear might be lost all at once if the wind simply decides to blow in the wrong way. Even if the clouds outside are gloomy, normal activities continue in the isolated house even as Nadja does all in her power to get Leon out of his shell.
The lesson that death is unavoidable and that one must make the most of one’s life, as conveyed by Afire, maybe a touch too direct at times. But, Petzold adds his own twist to the message by asking the audience to laugh and weep as they see four lives become entwined in a manner that is extremely honest and genuine.
Beer gives a particularly nuanced performance that is easy to watch and manages to captivate the audience’s attention. The film also features a fantastic ensemble that helps bring the movie’s wonderful characters to life. As a consequence of this, it is physically impossible to leave a screening of Afire feeling unmoved by the beauty that Petzold has created in this very little portion of the earth.