Film Review: Afire


Two young friends, Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel), take a fateful working retreat in a forest cabin on Germany’s Baltic coast. German director Christian Petzold’s latest is a tense, emotionally fraught drama, layered with smouldering internal conflict that – by its incendiary close – invariably catches alight.

Afire is not a horror film, but it is riven with the genre’s signifiers: a cabin in the woods, unexpected guests, and a broken down car ensuring that there can be no quick getaways should things go awry. One might expect Leon, an author, to be attentive to such meta-textual warnings, but so wrapped up in the completion of his latest novel is he and his in-the-moment companion, photography student Felix, that they glibly ignore all the signs of danger before them – not least of which is the wildfire currently raging through the Ahrenshoop woodland.

When the pair arrive at the cabin, Felix receives a call from his mother that family friend Nadja (Paula Beer) will be joining them, much to Leon’s sclerotic dismay, and on the first night he is kept awake by Nadja’s lovemaking with Devid (Enno Trebs), a local rescue swimmer. As the week progresses, Leon’s impatience with the other three becomes increasingly raw; pining after Nadja, he lashes out at Devid’s profession and makes no secret of his irritation at Felix’s carefree attitude, even doing down his portfolio ideas. Leon’s cruelties are transparent expressions of his own frustrations: it’s clear that this is a portrait of a man in deep crisis.

As he yearns for her, Nadja’s seemingly indefatigable kindnesses are met with snub after snub. Even after Devid and Felix strike up a relationship and Nadja invites Leon to watch the bioluminescence of the night-time sea in an act of mutual comfort, he stubbornly alleges that his work “won’t allow it”. It’s a gross act of stubborn self sabotage, an unforgivable moment of coldness.

Importantly, this moment takes place at night, representing a key turning point in the film. A motif of sleep runs throughout Afire: Leon complains of never getting enough of it, dozes off during the day and complains when his friend covers him when he risks being burned by the midday sun: a visual that is to be grimly mirrored later in the film. In a sense, Leon refuses to wake up to the friendships and kindnesses around him; he is trapped in a fugue of semi-slumber.

The mise-en-scene, shot in natural light, is realist and at human scale, but tilts subtly into surrealism come Afire’s climax, when the wildfire unexpectedly changes course and heads for the cabin. As his companions flee, Leon is confronted with a vision of nightmarish terror with a family of wild boar running screaming across his path, one of which is on fire, dying at his feet. It is unreally apocalyptic; a dreamlike horror to shake him out of his torpor. In the film’s climactic moments, those earlier horror genre signifiers find their apotheosis, but as opposed to the violent catharsis of horror cinema, here they resolve a complex layering of internal emotional conflict and consequence.

Christopher Machell