Afire is a slow burn, a slight yet engrossing and ultimately moving slice-of-life film not for all tastes. Photo courtesy of Schramm Film

Film Review: Afire

Film Reviews

Director: Christian Petzold 

Schramm Film and  Koerner Weber Kaiser
In Theaters: 08.11

The season of escaping the heat in an air conditioned theater is not quite over yet. While Afire is hardly blockbuster fare, it’s an intriguing portrait of the lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer.

Afire is set in modern day Germany as two friends, a novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert, A Winter’s Tale) and photographer Felix (Langston Uibel, Unorthodox), spend a working vacation by the Baltic Sea in a home owned by Felix’s family. Leon’s hopes of a secluded place to focus on writing his new book are complicated by the presence of Nadja (Paula Beer, Undine), a free-spirited woman who is a guest at the summer home, sharing the lodgings with the two men. Nadja proves to be a major distraction for the self-absorbed and caustic Leon, between her unflinching honesty and her considerable charms. Meanwhile, a local lifeguard, Devid (Enno Trebs, Raus), who starts out as a love interest for Nadja, gravitates toward Felix, drawing Leon and Nadja closer together as the looming threat of an out-of-control forest fire draws ever closer. 

Afire is a comparatively lightweight film for Petzold, who is best known for decidedly heavy works such as the 2014 holocaust–themed drama, Phoenix. This is hardly meant to imply that Afire is does not deal with serious themes, including self loathing, inability to connect with others and the question of whether life is defined by the futility of the ugly end heading for us all like a raging fire or whether the beauty to be experienced along the way makes that worth facing. Petzold’s pacing is on the leisurely side, and whether you’re able to get emotionally involved in the story depends a great deal on your ability to connect to the characters. Afire mixes subtle, character-oriented comedy with dramatic, sexual tension to weave an interesting story of human connection.

Shubert is quite off putting yet almost uncomfortably relatable as Leon, and I found myself thinking of a young Phillip Seymour Hoffman more than once. I can’t quite say that I was rooting for Leon so much as I wanted him to give me reasons to root for him, and I believe Petzold’s aim is to make us care just enough about the character to want to see him look beyond himself for a moment. Beer is simply wonderful as the unflappable Nadja, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the slow process of getting a sense of who she really is as a person. Trebs and Uibel both bring a likable presence, and Matthias Brandt (Die zweite Frau) is outstanding in a supporting role as Helmut, Leon’s publisher, a man whose function is all important to Leon yet who doesn’t even exist to Leon on a human level.

Afire is a slow burn, pun intended, and not for all tastes, particularly if you tend to want character drama to be based around significant and engaging events rather than small, introspective moments. I found it to be a slight, yet engrossing and ultimately moving slice-of-life film that’s well worth taking the time to explore. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more reviews of films emphasizing characters: 
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Film Review: Showing Up