Afire: Love is a Slow Burn in Christian Petzold’s Incendiary Rom-Com

Christian Petzold is at home making movies about municipalities but Afire (originally titled “Roter Himmel,” or “Red Sky” in German), is a Baltic seaside vacation that starts out funny until it becomes deathly serious. Turning from movies about cities to what happens when we leave cities for the endangered natural world, Petzold turns his lens to a rigid character drama that reshapes the pieces of a romantic comedy. What happens when a writer, photographer, lifeguard, and ice cream woman shares space in an old family cottage?

Initially what happens is a farce develops around their intersections. Petzold is naturally still making movies about Berliners: Leon (Thomas Schubert) is our lead, who has left the city to work on his manuscript, bringing in tow his dear friend Felix (Langston Uibel), who needs to curate a collection of photographs during their oceanside odyssey. When they get to Leon’s family cottage, there are unexpected guests. They are first introduced to firey redhead Nadja (Paula Beer) and her partner Devid (Enno Trebs) through hearing them having loud sex through the walls. This plants a seed that roots in the soil as the movie progresses: Leon wants Nadja as badly as he wants to write.

And maybe Leon isn’t any good at writing. Nadja reads his manuscript and says it’s bad. Leon’s professor Helmut (Matthias Brandt) stops by during their Baltic getaway and everything that could go wrong does go wrong. And then everything else goes wrong too. There is a fire that is encircling their camp. It starts further away but as the movie goes it gets progressively closer. The mounting pressure, as reflected by seismic shifts in the tone of the movie, corresponds exactly with how the all-enveloping fire encroaches upon the cottage.

Petzold shoots the film with the same courageous curiosity that has gotten all of his movies so far. He is not interested in characters the way most directors are. His camera is deeply invested, his need to tell the story already comes out of a deep familiarity with who these people are. A great director knows all of these things and then makes them come true in the movie and that’s exactly how Petzold handles it here. There is some kind of self-actualization happening behind the camera here, a deterministic outcome caused and known only by the director, it’s like the feeling you get when you watch a Kubrick movie.

Afire is truly great because it affords itself enough time to change as a movie. It moves between big themes freely and the direction is so adaptative to the characters. The camera understands who everyone is and how they operate and share space with one another. It is atypical in one way, in that they are no other romances like it, and familiar in another way, in that it connects to a thematic trilogy started by Petzold’s Undine (2021), but has the richer progressive layers of character found in Phoenix (2014) and Transit (2019). Afire is a slow burn beyond the metaphor of the fire that surrounds the characters. That they may be burnt to a crisp while trying to find themselves says more about them than the fire.


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