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MOVIES: Afire - Review

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Afire is the latest in the trilogy - although even though the first was about water and this is about fire; far more loose a description than than that - from Christian Petzold that follows off the back of Undine. They share different time periods; different settings and different characters, but are loosely connected by a theme of interwoven mythology and the idea of identity: this is what happens when a director at the top of his game attempts to give folklore to a county that has few; most stolen from elsewhere, and ground it in a modern day storyline.

The complicated and messy relationship between two friends – Felix and Leon; one distinctively more attractive than the other; who Leon can’t help but admire, is put under the spotlight when a seaside vacation at Felix’s family holiday home. Leon is the laid-back, quick to anger writer; Felix is the adventurous surfer whilst Leon seems reluctant to get his toes wet. It’s the clash of personalities that makes Leon instantly annoyed by Nadja, a mysterious woman – who gatecrashes Felix’s family’s home. Set against the backdrop of a forest fire making the film in touch with the current climate crisis from the word go – Afire feels like a deadly examination of a literal spark that sets out to burn relationships down and build new ones.

Petzold’s love of nature has been one of the more idealistic things about his work and his warnings of the danger of the crisis are present in Afire; the urgency using the narrative to spiral into tension whenever warning signs kick in; something that we’ve seen used more and more in film lately and it’s easy to see why. The dynamic between Felix and Leon evolves between this, there’s clear flashes of chemistry between them – the moment when they both wrestle and the camera lingers on them for more than a second – this is a complicated relationship as they come; and Afire lets it shine by mixing things up and throwing in Petzold regular Paula Beer into the equation, as the mysterious Nadja. She’s not quite a one-dimensional pixie dream girl; Petzold’s too smart for that – but there’s an air of mystery about her character all the same that Afire can’t help but delight in unravelling; not as blunt as Undine, but perhaps more mature.

The nature of the delicate trip being only used for work and not distraction puts Leon at a conflict between him and all else; an awakening – once he was blind; now he can see – the literal awakening of Nadja’s character showing into Leon’s life allows him to truly embrace the natural beauty of the world around him. The comedy is there; uniquely pictured in Petzold’s masterwork – deftly and maximising to instant effect. He’s funny – who knew? But then that wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who learnt he spent much of lockdown watching Eric Rohmer’s filmography, there are touches of it everywhere here. The film plays into the narrative of the author writing a book and you're led to question how much of it is the book and how much of it is the character; simply stellar stuff really - kind of like Bergman Island to a degree in terms of structure. There is happiness in life when it becomes literature but also a deep sadness here; the quiet portrayal of grief that comes with a devastating moment halfway through the film that acts as a turning point - or a would be one; would Leon be allowed to grieve.

Thomas Schuburt brings depth to his almost quasi-incel type lead and showcases the awakening that he undergoes over the film. Paula Beer just puts a way of expertise to the performance that proves she can make even the most simple task look completely magical under the gaze of Christian Petzold’s camera – and both actor and director are well aware of that. It’s such a film set up to obreak down the insecurity and sadness around a particular character and tears down those walls; allowing Afire to act as a rich character study of rarely seen proportions. A masterclass, really – the tenth film that I’ve seen by Petzold now and it’s as good as any of them. Never stale; boring – always imaginative and always new.

Afire is available in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema in the UK

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