Billed as the second installment of an elemental triptych, “Afire” comes after Christian Petzold’s 2020 film “Undine” where Paula Beer gave a Silver Bear-winning performance at Berlinale as the titular character, an urban historian and a mythical water spirit. As if the transition between them needed any smoothing out, the new film also relies on aquatic imagery to reinforce the claustrophobic premonition of smothering fires. Shot on the “German Riviera” (Warnemünde/Rostock on the Baltic coast), Petzold’s latest offering enacts a summer holiday at an idyllic cottage closer to the beach than to any populated dwelling, with sirens wailing, fire engines, and helicopters signaling the impending spread of forest fires.
We hear that “something’s not right” before properly meeting any of the characters; the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere; two young men have to carry their luggage the rest of the way; one of them suggests a shortcut. The German director is well-known for his wondrous flirtations with genre, between neo-noir (“Jerichow”), heist (“Cuba Libre”), and thriller (“Barbara”), so there’s nothing surprising in his opting to explore a horror-related trope. Leon (Thomas Schubert in his Petzold debut) seems more skeptical, while Felix (Langston Uibel) leads the way to his family’s summer house. Suspicions rise as, once they’ve reached the place, they count the signs of someone already living there—last night’s plates and glasses on the table, food leftovers, the buzz of the washing machine, a red pair of high heels, and purple underwear on the floor. Suspicion folds into embittered curiosity.
“Afire” is not a film of mathematical progressions, but Petzold builds his screenplay—an original idea that famously came to him in a fever dream when he was down with COVID—on the peculiar ways in which twos become threes, foursomes, and fives. The tensions which circulate around the male characters are knotty, tying them down to one another even tighter with every new addition to the group. Devid (Enno Trebs) appears in the frame sometime before we see his nighttime host and mysterious third occupier, Nadja (Beer), and his naked sneaking out visibly irritates Leon whose cranky temperament plays a big part in the film’s power dynamics. When two becomes four, conversations are on the verge of curtness, featuring some marvelous command of dinner sequences imbued with yearning and irony.
On the receiving end of most of the ironic lashes is Leon, a grumpy protagonist and a self-involved published writer who’s mulling over the finishing touches of his second book, graciously titled “Club Sandwich.” Schubert delivers an excellent, paced performance that channels a sympathetic sour-eyed egoist with short phrases and inspiring annoyance. The undertones of his mercurial performance suggest privilege, heartbreak, and hypersensitivity, all of which are kept just under the boiling point. Because of this repressed intensity, it feels like the other two men, as well as his editor (Matthias Brandt) who comes to visit, are simply there to play off his anxieties. Except for Nadja, who, both enigmatic and candid at the same time, seems at a greater distance from Leon.
Petzold’s regular cinematographer Hans Fromm films Schubert in a way similar to the inobtrusive attention he showed Undine in the previous film, and while this switch may feel a bit odd at the beginning (why wouldn’t you have Beer as a continuous lead?), it’s clear that Nadja, not himself, is the protagonist in Leon’s own story. It’s true that Schubert and Beer both starred in Andreas Prochaska’s 2014 western “The Dark Valley,” but their second time together on screen feels fully fleshed, as if they have grown into these characters to meet at the right time.
Paula Beer is much more than just a bright presence around a crabby artist in crisis, she is incandescent. There is a vivifying softness in her look, and a particular sweetness to the way she delivers the simple line of mild disappointment: “Shame…” One sequence, in particular, features her disarming recital of a lyrical poem by 19th-century German writer Heinrich Heine and the decision to have her repeat the lines once again is what transforms “Afire” into a cinematic miracle in the film’s last act.
While the German auteur is lauded for his inspired work with mood, narrative, and cinephiliac influences and his films are regulars in the Berlinale Competition, “Afire” is the uncompromising work of a master not only on conceptual and stylistic levels but also in terms of his emotional politics. Even in “Undine,” a largely mythical tale intertwining architectural history and the supernatural, Petzold hinted at a belief that only love, through its revolutionary potential, can be political. In fiery follow-up, he expands on this notion in what may be his most touching finale—which says a lot for a director who’s never failed an ending—in celebration of the quake of love’s representation. [A+]