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Thread: AFIRE/ROTER HIMMEL (Christian Petzold 2023)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    AFIRE/ROTER HIMMEL (Christian Petzold 2023)



    An egocentric young writer's drolly disastrous summer holiday

    As Kurt Brokaw recently pointed out in the Independent, the Manhattan opening of Petzold's Afire, a tale of four people closed in by forest fires, came well timed, on June 8, the very day after Canadian wildfires had caused New York City's skies to go orange to black and the air quality index to rise to a terrifying 484. That made the movie a logical summer hit. It ran seven weeks at Lincoln Center, right up to the opening of the New York Film Festival.

    But Afire deserved a long run not just for its eco-timeliness in Manhattan. LIke all Petzold's movies that I've seen, the Berlin School auteur has done something new and brilliant here again. Afire is a wry, sophisticated work about urban people in the summertime out of their element, and above all about oblivious creative ego. Afire teases and delights and constantly surprises with the way events around its central character unfold.

    It all revolves around the writer Leon (Thomas Schubert), for him anyway. Schubert, who is unathletic and slightly shapeless, is great casting, seeming just appealing enough to offset his character's endless self-involvement and ego - the better to underline his blithe unawareness that the natural world is in a menacing and dangerous state. All he cares about is his need to finish his new manuscript, his second novel, in time for a meeting with his publisher, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), though he is continually distracted from that.

    It's interesting that several critics have connected this talky summer tale to the films of Éric Rohmer. This is a curious kind of perversion of Rohmerian themes of idleness and chatter, flirtation and recombination. But Rohmer's characters were never dangerously clueless or menaced with eco-disaster. Things have taken a turn toward bitter but hilarious irony. If this were Rohmer, Leon would know this was no place to get writing done and just lay back and enjoy the scenery and the other people. But that, he is incapable of doing.

    Leon is oblivious, but the three other people who wind up being around him are very real and alive. He arrives in the forest on a road with his dark, lithe friend Felix (Langston Uibel): the car breaks down and then practically explodes. (Felix is supposed to be working on something too, planning an art school application photography portfolio, which ironically goes much better without his even bothering.) Felix leads them - much to Leon's doubt as to the safety and viability of his directions - on a wearisome trek, carrying their suitcases, to a summer cottage belonging to his mother. Surrounded by woods, it's not far from the Baltic coast, and thereby they meet up with the lifeguard (except he insists he's called a "rescue swimmer") called Devid (Enno Trebs) - a quirky GDR spelling for "David," Felix notes.

    All these distractions are disastrous, as far as Leon is concerned. It's essential that he never gets what's going on among the people around him. There's a cheerful, upbeat woman at the house, Nadja (Petzold semi-muse Paula Beer), forcing Lon and Felix to occupy the same bedroom. This can't work, Leon insists. Moreover there is the noise of lovemaking through the thin walls that keeps Leon from sleeping and sends him out to the "pergola" and the mosquitoes. And yet, as time goes on, Leon and Nadja exchange more and more long looks. Who is really interested in whom? Isn't Nadja connected with Devid? When Leon asks Nadja to assess his new manuscript, he will quickly regret it.

    Afire informs as it entertains, by catching us off guard, like Leon, and thereby causing us to experience continual vicarious hints of his self-absorbed cluelessness. The arrival of Helmut, Leon's publisher, for which he's not at all prepared, is the final disaster - except, of course, that far worse is on the way. Some of the final events have a mythical quality.

    Guy Lodge's enthusiastic Variety review notes that Petzold's writing "has never been this casually crisp or rawly funny," and is "studded with throwaway barbs and loudly unspoken truths". This he says has "shades of Rohmer at his cruelest," but also of "Baumbach at his coolest." After ten festures, Petzold is still showing new, remarkable facets. He is one of the most exciting and protean filmmakers in the world today.

    Afire/Roter Himmel ('Red Sky'), 102 mins., debuted Feb. 22, 2023 at the Barlinale, winning the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, German theatrical release Apr. 20. Also shortlisted as the German submissions for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film for the 96th Academy Awards. AFire can be watched on multiple online platforms. Metacritic rating: 82%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-28-2023 at 10:51 AM.


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