Dir.: Christian Petzold; Cast: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Paula Beer. Matthias Brandt; Germany 2023, 103 min.
German writer/director Christian Petzold (*1960) won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival 2023 in for Afire, his tenth feature film. This award is well earned: Petzold can be called the chronicler of recent German history, illuminating past and not so present transgressions. Hot on the heels of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog he is the only German director regularly featuring at international festivals. His minimalist style always cuts to the chase with a lean but substantial body of film.
Petzold’s first feature Innere Sicherheite/The State I’m In (2000) set the standard for what would follow: Petzold tells the story of a teenager whose desperate need for freedom jeopardises the security of her terrorist parents who have so far successfully avoided capture. In the 2001 he began what was to be an enduring collaboration with Nina Hoss and continued with FIPRESCI prize winner Wolfsburg (2003) and this continued with Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008). In Barbara (2012) Petzold investigates Germany’s immediate 1945 past, and Transit (2018), an adaption of the Anna Seeghers’ novel of the same name, featuring the life of German immigrants during the first years of the Nazi regime, saw him replacing Hoss with Paul Baer who won the Best Actor prize in Berlin for Undine (2020).
Afire is the second part of a trilogy about the artist in society in Germany. Set in an imagined time span after the fall of the wall in the advent of the computer age, this is a feature nonetheless dominated by human emotions with a dose of dark humour .
On the way to a summer getaway on the Baltic Coast friends Leon (Schubert) and Felix (Uibel) are waylaid when their car breaks down. Then Felix’s mother, the owner, has also promised Nadja (Beer), a post graduate student, one of the rooms. Nadja has a boyfriend, coastguard Devid (Trebs), and Felix and Leon have to listen to the couple’s lovemaking. This is quickly reversed, with Nadja and Leon having to listen to Devid and Felix getting it on.
Leon, meanwhile has just finished writing a second-rate novel and is behaving like a stroppy teenager, secretly in love with Nadja. Leon’s editor Helmut (Brandt) turns up and tempers flare, with catastrophic results.
All this fits into Petzold’s general overview of German men who still seem better at living than dying. Helmut discusses the director’s pet theme with Heinrich Heine’s poem “The Asra”.
DoP Hans Fromm puts a documentary spin on his images, catching the protagonists like fish in a deadly net. Schubert simmers quietly but effectively as the spoilt child would be author, and Beer does her best with a tricky role. But true to Heine himself, Petzold stays the course, and no one’s prepared for what’s in store.
Afire might not be Petzold’s greatest achievement, but he once again proves to be head and shoulders above his German peers. This is another sad tract on Germany’s guilt complex – played out by a new generation of males. AS
IN CINEMAS and ON CURZON HOME CINEMA from 25 AUGUST 2023