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Get Along Like a Forest on Fire

Christian Schulz/Schramm Film

Afire (2023)

He wears all black to the beach, so you know without being told that he’s a writer. An insufferable one at that, too. His name is Leon (Thomas Schubert) and he is beside himself with anxiety about his new book, which is expressed through childish sulking and rudeness, as well as an irritating tendency to see the worst in everything. Over the course of the movie – the German title of which literally translates to “red sky” – Leon learns the hard way about the importance of the social graces and the value of human kindness. But the way in which these lessons are taught leave a great deal to be desired.

Leon’s sweet friend Felix (Langston Uibel) has brought him to his family’s summer home on the German coast, for them both to get some work done: Leon on his book, and Felix on the portfolio he needs to put together for his art school application. But on the way Felix’s car breaks down and they have to walk for hours through the forest to get to the house. On arrival there’s a further disappointment: Felix’s mother forgot to mention the niece of a work colleague is also staying there. Her name is Nadja (Paula Beer) and the lads hear her having sex before they ever meet face to face. Leon even sees the bare arse of her fella, Devid (Enno Trebs, who can tell a joke) before they speak as well. It’s a bad start, made worse by Leon’s bad manners. He rolls his eyes, mocks people’s grammar, and generally makes his extreme discomfort at sharing his break with an ice-cream scooper and the local beach’s lifeguard felt. Felix is furious with his lousy attitude – and rightly so – but it’s Nadja who firmly calls him out. Leon apologizes, but can’t make himself behave with any less petulance. Oh, and the wildfires are getting closer.

There was a trend at this year’s Berlinale for movies to make climate change and its effects a smooth plot point without allowing the everyday problems of the characters to be overshadowed. While sirens go off and loudspeakers blare that open fires are now banned in a 50-mile radius, Felix goes swimming, Nadja makes lasagna and Devid helps around the house, making Leon feel bad about himself just through his good cheer and handsomeness. Ash falls around the house and firefighting helicopters fly low overhead but the evenings go on as planned. Well, until they don’t. It’s kind of a horror movie; the first part of the movie plays with a few cliches. First Leon is alone in the forest, hearing strange noises while he waits for Felix, topped by Nadja’s presence being felt before they ever directly speak, and all relies strongly on Andreas Mücke-Niesytka’s superb sound. But the horror in this movie is much more everyday.

Christian Petzold’s previous movie “Undine,” which also starred the radiant Ms. Beer, was a slower burn, the kind of movie that develops greater richness the more you consider it. Unfortunately, “Afire” has exactly the opposite effect. The trouble is the big twist. It is past time for movies (without spoilers) to stop having other people suffer so cishet white men can learn important life lessons. It is so boring, that something this romantic is only in service to the laziest of plot devices. There is nothing Ms. Beer couldn’t do, but Nadja’s patience with Leon stretches belief; poor Mr. Schubert has an unlikable part to play here, which he does well, but he fails to make the big reveal believable – which, well, maybe no one could. It’s just a leap too far for what we’ve seen of him, and it’s pretty childish of Mr. Petzold to think his actions would be appreciated.

All that said, there is a strange comfort to “Afire,” the feeling of looking out a window at the rain when you’re warm and dry inside. Possibly this has to do with the summer home setting, where meals are taken outdoors and the beach is just a short walk away. Possibly it has to do with the cleverness to have only five real speaking parts (Leon’s publisher Werner, played effectively by Matthias Brandt, makes a key appearance) in a movie that doesn’t feel small. Possibly it has to do with daily life carrying on even has fires appear over the horizon and towns not too far away being burned. They are still safe; and they don’t take that safety for granted. But the fires are getting closer. It’s just such a shame that the movie’s key takeaway are Leon’s feelings when the world has so much more to offer.


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