If there’s one thing Christian Petzold does well it’s introspective examinations of characters at the heart of overwhelming circumstances. Which isn’t the most succinct thing to put on your CV but you have to admit he does it well. After all he has a whole trilogy of films he calls ‘Love in Times of Oppressive Systems’ so clearly it’s working for him.

His latest piece, Afire, focuses on a narcissistic author agonising over his latest novel while sharing a holiday home in the Baltic Sea, completely uninterested in the raging wildfires consuming the nearby woodland. It’s a fitting subject for an artist like Petzold, a creative so obsessed with their own endeavours that they become openly hostile to anything outside themselves.

That sums up our protagonist Leon (Thomas Schubert) in a nutshell. A schlubby, sullen writer chafing against his idyllic surroundings. He refuses to go swimming with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) in favour of work that he never gets round to. When he finally does hit the beach it’s to sunbathe fully clothed reading German literature. All the while complaining about the loud noises of copulation from their rarely seen cohabitant Nadja (recurring Petzold collaborator Paula Beer).

Schubert’s performance clearly communicates both the creative frustrations and personal insecurity behind Leon’s aggression. There’s a visible longing in the fleeting glances he gets from Nadja tempered by a sense of unworthiness. He never for a second believes she could enjoy his company so instead Leon seethes in resentment. Interpreting her every action as a move against him.


As time passes and the fires burn ever closer the tension spreads from Leon to the rest of the household. To Felix ,and the lifeguard he has befriended Devid (Enno Trebbs), and eventually his own publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt). In all this Nadja tries to play the mediator, a natural fit for Beer’s inherent likability, but over time Leon’s self-centeredness pushes even her to breaking point. When the fires begin to rage, and real life knocks at their door she confronts him on the real pain experienced by people outside his tunnel vision.

It’s a cathartic experience for, as understandable as Leon is, he is just as insufferable to the audience as the characters. As a lead he gives Afire a grinding pace, where we wish to go along with the narrative but cringe at every misstep. An appropriately slow-burner that reminds us of how little our personal anxieties matter against the all-encompassing winds of fate.

Despite the sweeping circumstances, Afire feels like a regrettably small film. Well-written though he may be, Leon does not feel destined to stand out as one of Petzold’s better characters. Even Nadja feels more of an ephemeral thing for Leon to project onto, rather than a fully-fledged human being. What little romance there is between the two feels destined for disaster, however much sentimentality Petzold wants to tack onto the end.

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afire-reviewAn underwhelming, if appropriately slow-burner, that reminds us of how little our personal anxieties matter against the all-encompassing winds of fate.