Review: 'Afire' Merely Smolders
C.J. Prince READ TIME: 3 MIN.
It takes some time before "Afire," the new film by German director Christian Petzold, reveals what it's up to. It opens with two friends, novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert) and aspiring photographer Felix (Langston Uibel), stuck on a road in the countryside with a broken-down car. They're heading to a summer house owned by Felix's family as a retreat to work on their respective projects: Leon intends to finish the manuscript for his second book, while Felix brainstorms a photography project to add to his portfolio.
Felix leaves Leon at the car to find a way to the house on foot, and, as the sun goes down, Leon begins to hear strange noises around him. For a split second, the thought crossed my mind that Petzold might be trying his hand at horror again, like his 2007 film "Yella."
"Afire" isn't a horror film, although Petzold's playfulness with genre and expectations could make the film shapeshift at a moment's notice. Leon and Felix end up arriving at the house, only to discover Felix's parents double-booked their stay with Nadja (Paula Beer), a young, seemingly carefree woman making the most of the summertime. The disruption of her presence sends Leon into a spiral, his idealized vision of a writer's getaway ruined, while Felix happily goes with the flow. Then the addition of Devid (Enno Trebs), a charming lifeguard at a nearby beach who's having a fling with Nadja, makes Leon's doubts and insecurities flare up even more.
Petzold takes his time to establish Leon and Felix before letting other characters enter their orbit. Nadja doesn't appear until late in the first act, her presence established by the house's unkempt appearance and the sounds of her and Devid having sex in the room next to Leon and Felix's beds. There is some disappointment once "Afire" settles in on a portrait of the arrogant, insecure writer, a subject that's been done too many times in the past, although Petzold has his fun taking Leon down several notches. Glimpses of Leon's writing all but state outright that he's bad at it, a fact he's painfully aware of, and terrified to have validated (Leon's reveal of the title for his new book, combined with how he takes Nadja's baffled response to it, is one of the film's funniest moments). The takedown of an obnoxious, egotistical creative like Leon may be low-hanging fruit by this point, but within the context of Petzold's own filmography it's a surprisingly comedic turn for him.
The obviousness of "Afire," whether it's Leon's growth from a self-involved man-child or the ever-shifting meaning of the surrounding wildfires, does it no favors, especially after Petzold's run of strong films from the past decade, including "Barbara," "Transit," and, more recently, "Undine." Those films played with time, history, and mythology to create great dramas and romances imbued with a haunting quality. Petzold's romanticism is still here; it's just contained within a story that tends to underline more than it needs to. An exchange between Leon and his publisher highlights how oblivious he is to what's in front of him, a point undercut when Nadja spells it out to him minutes later in case anyone might have missed it.
"Afire" sees its director taking a conscious step in a different direction from his prior films, but in doing so he also takes a slight step down, using well-worn material to construct a solid, slightly underwhelming effort.
"Afire" opens in theaters July 14.