Afire: Hot Summer Nights, by Scott Nye
Even at the start, the vacation is not going well – Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel) are meant to spend a week or so at the latter’s family house near the ocean, when their car breaks down. Then, after walking the rest of the way to the house, they find someone’s been staying there; Felix’s mom forgot she also leant the place to Nadja (Paula Beer), a friend’s daughter or niece or something to that effect. That’s quite the intrusion as Leon especially is fixated on using the time to refine his second novel, and which is not quite coming together. Felix is theoretically gathering material for an art school portfolio, but is much less dedicated to that pursuit and almost welcomes the distraction. Tension is further building as the forest some miles away is on fire, though all are convinced the winds will keep it from them.
For the first day or two, Nadja hovers on the periphery, more an idea than a fellow houseguest. They only see remnants of her around – abandoned meals and clothes, slept-in beds, the sounds of sex in the other room – and even when he first sees her, Leon only spies on her from a distance. This forms impressions, ideas, and for those familiar with Petzold, associations – is Nadja another one of the phantom-like women Franz Rogowski chased in Transit and Undine? For Leon, she is an attractive person that doesn’t seem too considerate. That she might return his interest seems impossible, and so, when they’re finally introduced, Leon rebuffs any courtesy she extends to him. He has categorized her as a nuisance, and that is what she will remain to him. Beer plays with this way Nadja has to constantly change for Leon by playing Nadja as quite a bit guarded herself, letting him writhe in his own false certainty of who she is.
Leon has a single-minded focus on himself and his work that many people in creative spheres experience, and which can compound into a sort of protective spite for the ease with which others go through life. If much of cinema is represented by people saying “yes” to unexpected adventures, Leon is a consistent “no” man. “No” to shared dinners, “no” to excursions to the beach, “no” to anything that might make this a holiday and not simply a work trip. His first novel was a success, and he’s having trouble repeating that. Schubert builds into the character a sense that any conversation he’s having that isn’t related to the book is a waste of time, constantly bracing himself and looking around for a way out, only to frustrate himself as soon as he sits down and meets with the repeated mediocrity of his words.
In this way, Afire would be a fine companion piece to Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up from earlier this year. Afire further complicates this struggle by placing Schubert – an overweight man, average appearance – alongside slim, fetching actors Beer, Uibel, and Enno Trebs (who plays a sexually vivacious lifeguard). For those outside of this sphere, it can feel at times like there’s a Pretty People’s Posse to which some gain reflexive entry while those outside it need to prove their worth. In point of fact, this is rarely the case, but for people like Leon (and I speak from my own experience here as well), one builds a lifetime of rejection trying to break into this circle in romantic arenas that one can start to extend that to every other avenue as well. Leon is already projecting their inevitable dismissal when he first puts up those walls.
Those who know writer/director Christian Petzold’s work, particularly his last three films – Phoenix (2014), Transit (2018), and Undine (2020) – may be surprised at the relatively realistic, even, for a time, placid nature of this latest film. Afire doesn’t require the viewer to take massive leaps with the filmmaker, nor does it terribly upend expectations of the type of film it is. Beyond representing a change of pace for Petzold (or at least, a return to the milieu of earlier films like Barbara and Jerichow), this is a fitting outgrowth of his central character. As with those earlier films, Petzold approaches even routine scenes with undefinable tension, here buttressed by the distant fire, a sense that everything burning beneath the surface of these semi-polite encounters could at any point engulf them. What might seem like easy symbolism on the page is refreshingly crisp onscreen. Petzold was inspired to make the film after watching a series of Eric Rohmer films, many of which are propelled by the same sort of tension of being at some rather spectacularly relaxing place but being unable to settle, and the fire for most of the film is so far backgrounded that it is not a driving force within the story. When it starts to intrude, it does so beautifully, hauntingly, but its threat would not feel so potent if not for everything left misunderstood, misstated, or entirely unsaid. The real meat of the film still comes from the people.
If I take one issue with the film, it’s with an arena we can’t well discuss in detail here, but which is especially unexpected with Petzold – the ending. Where each of his prior films (at least since 2007) concluded at a precise, arresting moments of ethereal tension, Afire sort of dawdles past its natural conclusion but stopping well before it can absorb and express potential new avenues of intrigue. Given that Petzold is back in a more minor key, the ending leaves the impression of something slightly underdeveloped across the whole work, though I’ve often said that such films end up working better in the larger context of a body of work than they might feel on the weekend of their release. Petzold is reportedly developing films based on water, fire, earth, and air – Undine and Afire satisfying those first two – so I will be interested in revisiting this film in that future context, should he continue on that path. As it stands, it’s an impressive, beguiling, and somewhat confounding film that draws out a lot about people’s tendency to become self-involved even in the case of catastrophe. Always relevant, that.