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Afire (2023) movie review and synopsis

While Petzold isn’t known for anything overtly joking, he’s poking fun at himself a bit here. As it happens, “Afire” (its original German title is “Roter Himmel” or “Red Sky”) is the second film in a quartet whose theme will be the elements; Petzold’s last film, “Undine,” had water as its defining element. The fire in this film spreads through the forests on the German island where Leon and Felix have gone on a working holiday.

After their car breaks down and they are forced to hoof it to a holiday home owned by Felix’s family, Leoni and Felix, the exact nature of whose relationship we are never quite sure, are surprised that there is another resident there. . The scheming Nadja is played by the scheming Paula Beer in her third film with Petzold. (In “Undine,” she played a mermaid. Kind of a mermaid.) Nadja is heard before she’s seen, having enthusiastic sex in the house’s thin-walled master bedroom. It makes Leon quietly, rapturously mad – almost anything makes Leon quietly, rapturously mad – but it turns Felix around a bit. When he finally appears, Nadja is cheerful and open. We soon meet her sex partner, David—spelled, Felix notes, in “an old GDR quirk”—who is a lifeguard at the beach. While Felix, David and Nadja enjoy the wine, Leon worries about his latest novel. His editor, a kindly old man, is coming to the island to discuss the manuscript of the novel, entitled “Club Sandwich”. Soon after learning that Nadja spends her days selling ice cream near the island’s luxury hotel, Nadja asks her to look at the book. He scoffs. A cleaner once asked him to read a story of his, and she pronounced it “a bit strange”. If a cleaner’s rating could prompt such a paroxysm of self-doubt … well, Leon doesn’t buy into that thought, but we get it. When his editor shows up, Leon is in for a surprise about Nadja, which turns out to be a sad comedy of failure.

For most of “Afire,” Petzold really drops the hammer on Leon, and everything that happens to him doesn’t force him to react with less of a joke. When Felix and David begin their sexual affair – which Nadja has no problem with and which Leo observes with vague anger – the film’s dramatic stakes rise not unlike the flames the quartet can see from the roof of their house as swallows forest land.

Petzold has quietly and diligently built one of the most impressive filmographies of this century. The compulsively literate (and literary-allusive) dialogue here, combined with the precise but subtle mise-en-scène and editing, may for some bring to mind the late, great Èric Rohmer. But Petzold, while not without humor, is generally a more serious director than Rohmer, and the way this film moves toward tragedy is shocking. It leads to a conclusion that in some respects can be called pat, but also justifies itself well enough – mainly due to the outstanding work of the actors, especially Schubert and Beer – to assemble. Like all of Petzold’s recent pictures, “Afire” draws you in with confidence and prepares its emotional knockout punch with scrupulousness and a lively sense of surprise.

Now plays in theaters.

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