Christian Petzold Changes Pace with the Breezy Relationship Drama Afire

Leon is going on vacation. He won’t rest until he makes everyone else miserable. 

In Afire (2023), the latest effort from German director Christian Petzold, Thomas Schubert stars as the Eeyore-like writer, who has accompanied his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) to his family’s seaside cottage with the enthusiasm of a 14-year-old boy on a summer holiday. He’s mad that they’re forced to share the cottage with Nadja (Paula Beer), an acquaintance of Felix’s mother’s. He’s irritated that her loud sex with a hot lifeguard (sorry, rescue swimmer) disturbs his slumber. 

Poor Felix, basically the human incarnation of a golden retriever, tries to encourage Leon to have a little bit of fun, but is shut down at every turn. Leon can’t go swimming in the ocean – he’s busy working. The end result is a character who is, frankly, insufferable, but utterly fascinating to watch in the hands of Schubert, who captures every flash of annoyance in his eyes.

Leon’s tightly wound on this vacation, and for good reason: his publisher is coming to review his latest novel. He’s convinced that he’s about to get verbally savaged over its lack of quality. But he’ll soon have bigger problems on his hands as the threat of forest fires looms threateningly over their peaceful seaside cottage. Even in the sequences of the film that are all relationship drama, structured almost as though they were part of a stage production, Petzold never allows us to forget about this danger. He floods the screen with reds, from the beautifully ominous sky to Nadja’s crimson dress.

Afire represents a change of pace for the director, whose films are often packed with heavy themes. At first glance, this is a much more breezy holiday drama, a stagey five-person ensemble that plays out over a bottle of wine on a sun-kissed afternoon. If there’s much conflict to speak of, it’s primarily Leon warring with his own temperamental nature, wanting to be a part of the group having fun but unable to resist the urge to be completely and utterly miserable to everyone around him. 

His insecurities come through constantly, with his terror at having his manuscript criticised and how threatened he feels by the presence of Devid (Enno Trebs), the aforementioned hot rescue swimmer whose charm and easygoing nature (the antithesis of Leon) allow him to easily endear himself to the group. But despite the fact that the film appears to just glide along, elements of horror and tension assert themselves at key moments as the forest fires invade the narrative, elegantly intermixed without feeling as though they’re out of left field.

Aside from Petzold’s always compelling directorial style, the main draw of Afire is its impeccably cast ensemble of actors. Schubert shines in the lead role of Leon, combining arrogance and self-loathing in a way that makes his character frustrating but someone the audience can ultimately empathise with. The incomparable Paula Beer is, as usual, another highlight, bringing emotional intelligence and warmth that radiates from the screen. Their relationship operates as the beating heart of Afire, a film that is at times devastating, melancholy and irreverent, but always a joy to watch.

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Audrey Fox is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic and a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, with bylines at, /Film, The Nerdist, Looper, amongst others.