An Interview with Christian Petzold on Afire and Being Out of Your Mind

“It’s better for cinema when you’re a little out of your mind.”

– Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold is one of contemporary cinema’s most celebrated directors. His filmography, including such luminous titles as Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit, is a must-see for any lover of cinema. 

Petzold’s films often highlight the different ways people try to live amidst rapidly changing landscapes. In Phoenix, it’s a woman’s rebirth in a society that robbed her of her former identity. In Transit, it’s someone escaping the forces of fascism so he can find a place to safely live from one day to the next. And in Petzold’s latest film, Afire, it’s a group of people in an idyllic landscape being overcome by the ravages of a forest fire. The drama is a eulogy for a world that might be quickly disappearing.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Petzold about his approaches to storytelling. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Akash Singh: Welcome. Thank you so much for making the time. I really appreciate it.

Christian Petzold: Thank you very much. I’m a little bit dizzy because of jet lag, but it’s ok. Sometimes it’s better to be dizzy. It’s better for cinema when you’re a little bit out of your mind.


Christian Petzold | Photo by Marco Krueger, / Schramm Film

I was sitting in the Criterion screening room, where they screened Fritz Lang’s M (1931) with some students. The teacher saw me and said “Can you tell the students something about Fritz Lang?”

I talked to the students for about ten minutes. I told them the story about M and fascism and Fritz Lang. I liked those ten minutes. It was great to talk to the students but when the lights went off and the screening started, the students were there in body but not in mind. This is cinema and cinema is something akin to daydreaming.

Whenever an editor of mine says, “this paragraph doesn’t make sense,” I’m just gonna say that Christian Petzold said it’s better for cinema for me to be a little bit out of my mind. [Laughter.] When watching Afire, I was struck as to how the film mirrors a lot of the conversations happening around us today about the world being on fire, literally and figuratively, and how difficult it can be to live our lives amidst all the fire and smoke.  I was really struck by Leon [played by Thomas Schubert], who struggles to be at peace with his surroundings, with other people, with himself. What were you trying to say through a character who seems incapable of living?

When you have a cabin in the woods, a forest, a forest lake, an American night as they say, you have all these ingredients for a story, for storytelling, so the possibilities are endless. One of those possibilities is to tell the story of an artist who’s talking the entire time about work but the audience never sees him working.

When we were filming, we were surrounded by forest fires. The actors are very young. They told me that they don’t have the feeling that there are so many summers left to tell these stories. We’ve been able to tell these stories for hundreds of years, but it could be that in twenty years, there’s no room; there’s no environment to tell stories like this.

This is something really special in our historical situation. Leon never sees the fire, he never sees the love. It was not my purpose to tell a pedagogical story about artists today, what they have to do. It was simply our experience during filming, that the story is something political, as we were discussing the end of forests, the end of summers, the end of youth.

In this moment, we heard sirens and there was a forest fire, helicopters spraying water… So it not only comes into Leon’s surroundings, it’s also coming into the whole film. That, to me, was interesting.

There was one shot in particular of the forest fire, this blood orange sky above the silhouette of the forest. I live near San Francisco, so that image is unfortunately part of our lives far too often. Even here, the sense of seasons has changed so dramatically in the past few years. Even if people don’t talk explicitly about the seasons changing, they talk about their relationships to their surroundings and spaces changing.

Yes, when I passed through Border Police yesterday, the officer asked me about the purpose of my visit. I said, “It’s for a movie I made.” He asked me what my movie was about and I told him that it’s about forest fires. He looked at me and he told me that he was in Canada last week and when he came back to his cabin to take a shower, the shower floor afterwards was black from the ashes. He told me that I have to make more films about forest fires.

For me, it’s a red sky and in there is a romantic picture. You’re sitting there, the sun is setting, the sky is red, and that means it’s the end of the world–somewhere people are dying, losing their homes. You see it in New York: We saw it on the way here on the plane, the pollution, the billowing smoke from the Canadian forest fires.

In the past twenty years, dystopian films have become mostly fascist films because there’s a desire to make a tabula rasa. They want to destroy our world and rebuild a new clean one. A quiet place, a desire to put it all away. 

Then there’s films that say, “Look at our lives: this mixture, the complications, little bit dirty, little bit corrupted, sometimes mean, but it’s our life and we have to fight for it.” That’s what we strove for in this production, with the discussions we had, the depiction of this character who’s an asshole writer. It was me engaging with the elements of storytelling I love. Because this dystopia fascism in films is something we have to fight against.

I once read an essay where the writer talks about this distinction, this divide in dystopian novels around how writers approach dystopia as a social concept. Some writers imagine the worst possible scenarios for them to live through. Other writers, especially those of us from marginalized backgrounds, have the personal experience and or ancestral history of that suffering and therefore we don’t have to imagine those worst possible scenarios. We’re more interested in exploring what comes beyond that–the construction versus the simple razing down.

Cormac McCarthy, he’s very important to me as a writer. When I read The Road, it’s a dystopian novel, you can learn many things from it–when you have an inheritance, to give it to the next generation. In that story, the father tries to give his son a legacy about humanity, morality… he tries to and that matters.

When I watch cinema, I always have the feeling that films try to impart a legacy, which could be something as simple as a smile, a glance. When we have a legacy, we have a history and the dystopia guys, they want to destroy history. 

I’m giving this interview in the Criterion offices in New York, so the thoughts of preserving cinema as a legacy, as history are even more pressing on my mind. The article you referenced is speaking to this subject, about how we can survive – and we can only survive if we know something about us. And cinema is a place where you can learn it.

I love your films Phoenix and Transit so, so much – they’re burned into my memory and were among the first films I talked to my boyfriend about when we were talking about my relationship to film. In both of those films, you really play with the sense of time and setting. Whether it’s the 1930s or 1940s, you bring in modern technology … it’s almost like magical realism. What prompted you to take that approach to those particular stories?

There’s a strong feeling that when you make a period picture, you have to recreate the period [itself], but for me, cinema is always in the present, always. The recreation is a dream, an imagination of history. And this, it’s important to me not to rebuild something, but rather to refeel it. 

We are now in Germany, in 2023 and and I walk through Berlin, I see these metal stones in the streets with names and dates. They’re memory stones in front of homes where Jewish people used to live, people who were killed in the Holocaust.

So you go through this city and you have the present, the past, and the history together in every stone, in every space. This, for me, is the city: a living compilation of histories that exist as one in the same moment, the same space.

I can’t stand when period films recreate, for example, the fake smoke to give the appearance of a room where numerous cigarettes are being smoked. You see this room full of fog but it’s so clearly fake. These kinds of recreations are, in essence, lying.


Afire is now in select cinemas including TIFF Lightbox.