Download: Berlin Dispatch - Afire
It has been a very German film-heavy edition of the Berlinale, the competition lineup alone includes five entries from the host country. Which serves as a good reminder that – although Germany can’t compete with France for its cinephilic tradition, nor has it been producing such galvanizing works that put Korea on the map – there is a robust filmmaking industry here, as well as world-class auteurs doing things their way. Hits like TONI ERDMANN or ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT didn’t just happen by accident. And now, courtesy of veteran filmmaker Christian Petzold, look out for another cinematic gem in the form of AFIRE, a mesmerizing, shape-shifting drama that reflects on the writing process and the casual encounters and acquaintances that end up defining our lives.
It is the height of summer and aspiring writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) decides to spend time with his buddy Felix at a country house to get some work done. There’s a forest fire going on in the region but no immediate danger for the boys, so Leon is more preoccupied with his manuscript and the mysterious girl Nadja (Paula Beer) who’s also staying at the house. When Nadja’s nighttime visitor – Devid, the lifeguard at the beach nearby – joins the party, he brings a spark that soon changes the dynamics of the group.
To me, Petzold embodies the term auteur in its most literal sense. His films are so artfully written they read like literature. Even when I can’t fully connect with the result on screen (see TRANSIT), there’s a level of sophistication to his words that always fascinates. AFIRE starts off with deceptive simplicity: two guys in a house, one trying to have a good time, the other distracted and slightly obsessed with the strange girl. The setup is modest, free of the weighty historical background of BARBARA or PHOENIX. But as the story progresses, ever more layers would be revealed and you realize just how well thought-out, how intricately considered the script is. By its fiery, melancholic end – written with typical Petzoldian restraint – the whole thing comes together in a way that feels so right it sings.
The screenwriting also slays in terms of building individual characters and scenes. It’s rare to have a protagonist as unsympathetic as Leon, but through all his petulance you really get an incisive, unglorified profile of a writer: a self-appointed first-person narrator absorbed in their own world. Contrasting vividly with such a creature of ego is the character of Nadja – an object of desire, a muse, someone who finally opens the writer’s eyes. The relationship between the two evolves with a constant note of surprise and takes a brilliant turn with the introduction of a new character in the film’s third act. There’s a dinner scene where Nadja is asked to recite her favorite poem, twice. She obliges, and it’s quite remarkable to see the characters visibly adjust their perception of one another in real time.
Petzold writes with an extraordinary grasp of rhythm and authenticity. He knows how to recreate the flow of an actual conversation and capture the tension that comes with it. In an earlier dinner scene, Devid shares a crazy story from his past and does something unexpected at the end. As odd as the whole episode may seem, the dialogue is so compelling you feel like you’re listening to a group of friends talk while being acutely aware of every temperature change in the room.
Schubert and Beer are both great and make for a formidable on-screen duo. The former never “plays” unpleasant but sells the unlikable hero anyway by bringing Leon’s crippling insecurity to life. Beer delivers an exceptional co-lead/supporting performance that hides as much as it shows. She nails the air of mystery about Nadja and impresses especially with the force of her withering looks. After winning the best actress prize at the Berlinale 2020 for her last Petzold-collaboration UNDINE, I wouldn’t rule out a second win for best supporting performance. Bonus points for her scenes on the bike, which recall the iconic image of former Petzold-muse Nina Hoss in BARBARA.
Petzold’s films seldom draw attention to their direction, the mise en scène is characterized by a disciplined understatement. This holds true in AFIRE, a film devoid of formal or stylistic stunts. And yet there’s a richness to the narrative, including its dream-like quality and metaphorical possibilities, realized with complete assurance. It’s the work of a master and the latest addition to a growing list of Bear contenders as the Berlinale enters its home stretch.