Afire review

Afire Review: A Masterwork of Staggering Effect

Summer romance with a twist

Winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival, Afire is a masterwork of staggering effect. The film’s idyllic beach vacation set up ingeniously evolves into a piercing indictment of societal navel-gazing. Writer/director Christian Petzold (Transit, Undine) deftly maintains a subtle yet assured command of its narrative and cinematic tropes, underscoring them with his trademark tendency to warp the viewer’s perspective. Rarely has the so-called summer film had such a bracing impact.

The filmmaker has admitted to studying the works of Éric Rohmer around the film’s making, and the influence of Pauline at the Beach is particularly evident. But one only needs to scratch the surface of Afire to see that it cannot be dismissed as lighter fare in this prominent artist’s filmography.

Employing his usual genre blending and nods to cinema history, Petzold upends the expectations of this typically escapist subject. By blending thriller, film noir and a delicate romantic comedy, he creates a highly original take on this more effervescent genre. His use of a mysterious narrator only adds to the film’s unnerving suspense and eventually leads to a fascinating twist.

Leon (Thomas Schubert), a writer, and his friend, Felix (Langston Uibel) a photographer, set off on a country retreat to Felix’s family home by the Baltic Sea. Both must focus on completing a current project. The two are surprised to find that a mysterious woman, Nadja (the always beguiling Paula Beer), has already settled in after making prior arrangements with Felix’s mother.

Right from the outset, something is amiss, with news of wildfires raging out of control. But Petzold initially keeps this aspect on the back-burner. This tactic creates a discomforting tension as the film insists on focusing on the antics of these characters at their scenic retreat instead.

The filmmaker does, however, begin to craftily conjure a sinister tone that will come to dominate, allowing the film’s most self-absorbed protagonist, Leon, to mediate the action of the narrative. His increasingly paranoid point of view begins to overtake the film.

While Felix takes advantage of their sublime locale and quickly embraces the social aspect of Nadja’s presence, a petulant Leon isolates himself. His initial self-absorption does not subside with time and actually gets worse as his fascination with Nadja grows.

Petzold masterfully shifts the focus to a voyeuristic Leon who can’t stop watching Nadja. He is constantly looking in and out of the windows at her. All action stops as he surveys her walking past in the dreamy landscape that surrounds them. Rather than enjoy this natural world himself, he becomes laser focused on her. The myriad emotions rippling across the stoic face of Thomas Schubert as Leon is peak bravura acting.

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And as Petzold’s camera begins to follow Leon’s point of view, so too does the audience’s perspective shift. Petzold methodically traps the viewer’s viewpoint within Leon’s egotistical vision. Many of the dramatic reveals in this narrative are subsequently lost on this character.

There are hints of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim in this scenario (two men entranced by a charming woman), until we learn a key piece of information about Felix. It’s not so much a surprise for us as it is for Leon – and even of our perception of Leon. That’s the real shocker: how could he not know something like this about his friend? From this point, Petzold unravels the greater mystery at play in this narrative.

Although the darker aspects of Afire’s ending are alarming, it’s all actually inevitable if one follows Petzold’s strategies. The final reveals are masterfully executed. Nadja’s ultimate response to Leon is quite brilliant, liberating them both, and consequently the viewer, from the myopic and sometimes overly facile conclusion often attached to similar narratives.

Afire may have a tragic twist that will put some viewers off but, at the same time, the pressure from the film’s build-up is mercifully released. This provides a strange sense of relief and grants insight for anyone who chooses to see it.

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There are any number of scenarios that Petzold could have followed to a conclusion here but many of the more obvious ones are overly simplistic. Luckily for everyone involved he did not pursue them. Instead, Afire is a topical film – an environmental warning with much deeper implications. This highly resonant film is a potent wake-up call.

Afire opens in theatres on July 14.

 



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