Review: Filmmaker Christian Petzold Turns to Contemporary Life to Find Drama, Sparks in Afire

Filmmaker Christian Petzold has made a few of the most compelling European films of the last several years in Phoenix, the story of a Holocaust survivor searching for answers in her relationship, and Transit, about a man trying to escape occupied France while falling for the wife of the man he's impersonating. I even appreciated Undine, though it was less rapturously received by critics at the time, in which Petzold reunites with Transit cast members Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski for a tormented romance inspired by mythology. Which is why I took notice when I heard earlier this year that the filmmaker would be releasing a new film, Afire, about friends at a holiday house navigating new and old relationships as wildfires burn nearby.

Compared to his earlier works, Afire (also written by the director) seems less involved, less complicated. The setting is contemporary, the relationships are modern, and there's no authorities to run from or mythical legends to contend with. But the film still manages to say quite a lot as we get to know writer Leon (Thomas Schubert), photographer Felix (Langston Uibel), as well as their unexpected company Nadja (Beer) and her boyfriend, Devid (Enno Trebs) over the course of the weekend. Calling on greats like Rohmer and Demy, Petzold turns his focus to the inner workings of a creative mind, the interpersonal relationships that influence our daily lives and the quotidien drama that bubbles up even when we're not seeking it out.

Friends Leon and Felix arrive at Felix's mother's country cottage for a work weekend; the former to finalize his latest novel before his publisher arrives to review the manuscript with him, the latter to piece together a portfolio of portraits he's been working on. But Felix soon shares news with his friend, that another guest is expected to share the space with them, unannounced until his mother gave him last-minute notice. The guest is Nadja, who's introduction to the men is...noisy (Leon is kept awake by the sex she and Devid are having in the next room).

But Nadja is actually a lovely person, and Leon soon finds it difficult to be truly upset with her, even if on the outside he lets his annoyance get the best of him in episodes like rudely grilling Devid over an otherwise lovely dinner conversation. For most of the film, Leon is insufferable. He's self-centered and grumpy, bothered by everyone around him when they don't see the world as he does or live their lives as he would. At first pass, this sort of disagreeableness is frustration; why should we want to spend time with someone like him? But Petzold knows better and soon reveals why we should, too. Leon is that rare creation in contemporary film: a fully fledged human being.

To the extent that he centers the film, it's fascinating to watch Leon's relationships and those around him evolve (and devolve) over the course of the weekend. Nadja is observant and patient, and finds Leon a bit like a puzzle to be solved, while Devid and Felix create an unexpected connection of their own. And when Leon's publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) arrives, a whole new, very insecure side of the writer emerges. By the film's final act, those less interested in watching people be people might be wondering where all of this is leading, but Petzold has thought of that, too, delivering a couple of narrative twists near the end of the film (one slightly more predictable than the other, but I quibble).

Afire is squarely within Petzold's wheelhouse where observational, character-driven narratives are concerned, and he excels yet again. If he's broaching new territory here, it's in the contemporary setting, one that finds its drama in the every day comings and goings of people with egos and libidos. In both cases, the filmmaker yet again makes our time spent with him worth our while.

Afire opens at Gene Siskel Film Center on July 28.

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Lisa Trifone