starring Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs
written and directed by Christian Petzold
by Walter Chaw In their fetishization of hopelessly pretty women on bicycles. there is a hint of Claude Chabrol in Christian Petzold's films; and in their obsessive deconstructions of interpersonal interactions, a touch of Arnaud Desplechin. Both echoes are filtered through a specifically Teutonic social brusqueness that reminds me now of Paul Verhoeven's early Dutch thrillers. Petzold's latest, Afire, is, in other words, a wonderland for film nerds looking to engage in another of this filmmaker's beautifully wrought bits of cinematic nostalgia, though I confess Afire flayed me close to the bone more for its depiction of a lumpen, lachrymose writer named Leon (Thomas Schubert) than for its rich, multi-textural references. (It's Ozon that Petzold most resembles, isn't it? Or is it countryman Fassbinder, the master of the social-realist melodrama?) The picture opens with Leon and his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) driving to Felix's father's house in the woods by the ocean when their car breaks down. Wandering along a trail, Leon asks if they're lost, and Felix, in response, sprints deeper into the forest with promises to scout out the road ahead. "It can't be far!" he says. Afire sets itself up immediately to be a folk-horror movie where Felix never comes back and Leon is left to fend for himself against cultists or witches or wildlife. But Felix does come back, and all those immediate feelings of dread linger like a chill over the remainder that no amount of the film's wildfires can completely chase away.
There is a surprise occupant at the house: a young woman, Nadja (Paula Beer)--an erotic dream of an inamorata we're introduced to via moans of pleasure bleeding through the too-thin walls. Felix is philosophical and forgiving, while Leon is affronted, complaining about his need for sleep and how Nadja's presence will interfere with his privacy and ability to decompress. He's an asshole. Felix tells him he can have the pergola in the yard all to himself, and Leon, unable to think of a thing to complain about that arrangement, says nothing. For his part, Felix wants to patch a leak in the roof, to go to the beach, to work on his own project, a portfolio of his photographs. For a while, I wondered if they were lovers (an early tussle suggests some homoerotic tension between them), although Leon is too prickly and solipsistic to be a proper mate for anyone. Left to his own devices, he and his precious work sit equally unmolested. Leon takes a lot of naps and wakes up furious with himself. He's a Jack Torrance, snowed-in and isolated by self-loathing and social anxiety. He only has a few days before his publisher (Matthias Brandt) is going to want to go through Leon's manuscript line-by-line--and though he won't admit it, Leon knows what he's written is garbage: trite, remote, barren. It's what's making him so impossible to live with right now, a mother not willing to admit his child is stillborn, ferocious at the mere suggestion that his fields are salted and barren.
I know Leon well. Petzold does, too. Leon, the writer, weighed down by expectation and a long, endless deadline that stretches like an umbilicus from his navel into a malevolent hourglass forever draining. Leon, the writer, embarrassed to admit he is one--mortified by what he produces yet incapable of doing better and, despite his failures, similarly incapable of stopping. He's handcuffed to a creative compulsion. Felix drags Leon to the beach, where Leon refuses to swim and Felix begins a flirtation with handsome, happy-go-lucky lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs), Nadja's partner from a few nights earlier. They laugh together from atop Devid's lifeguard tower while Leon glances at them suspiciously, even jealously, like a miserable sea creature beached and prodded by manifold indignities. He then falls asleep, and wakes up with a towel over his face, furious. Felix explains that Leon would've been badly sunburned had he not covered him. Leon knows this is true, but it's easier to be angry with Felix for humiliating him. I have not often seen a better representation of precisely the kind of belligerent a writer in the throes of self-hatred can be. He is a magnet polarized against every comment, locating offense in any question and discomfort in any overture.
The problem is that he's instantly in love with Nadya. One night, he stands alone in a darkened room, staring out at Felix, Devid, and Nadya hitting an illuminated shuttlecock back and forth in the pitch black. Retrieving it after a miss, Nadya comes near the window where Leon lurks. As she bends against the house, Leon closes his eyes as if pretending she's bending towards him to put her cheek close to his, intimate--a lover's secret gesture. It doesn't have to be a secret, his infatuation with her, but Leon can't connect with others in the present. He can only lament lost opportunities from a lonesome vantage in a cold future. He's a writer who's only a good one when he's pulling from the experience of his despair. Another night, Nadya asks for company to the seashore to watch bioluminescent algae glow in the tide. "Come," she says, "I find the sea to be spooky at night." But Leon refuses, citing his need for rest so that he can continue to work on the piece he has yet to work on even once during his time there. Leon is a miserable coward: fragile, frightened of his desire, incapable of living in the moment. His life is only meaningful in the rearview of his writing, and he hasn't written anything. Once the tension reaches a breaking point, Petzold, as in his other films, releases pressure through surprising and poignant losses, coloured this time by Leon's voice narrating a devastating sequence in which he sees the end of his writer's block in the metaphor of the lovers of Pompeii: corpses immortalized in an eternal embrace, finding comfort in each other at the end of the world. When it's too late.