Christian Petzold has for years been a titan of German cinema – and the Berlin film festival itself – and his new movie is an odd, quibbling tragicomedy with perhaps a little of Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, avowedly intended as the second part of a trilogy about creativity and love (the first being Undine).
Afire is an approachable and digestible movie in some ways, and I liked the morose, hangdog look conjured by actor Thomas Schubert playing the miserable young writer Leon, who correctly suspects that his new novel, a zeitgeisty relationship comedy called Club Sandwich, is terrible. But in the end I felt that the film fully achieves neither the ostensible comedy of the opening, nor the supposed sadness of its denouement.
Leon and his art student friend Felix(Langston Uibel) have come to a holiday home belonging to Felix’s mum on the Baltic coast, to relax and do some work: Leon will revise his manuscript, and Felix will take some photographs for his portfolio. But their car breaks down on the way and after they turn up, exhausted and on foot, they find that Felix’s mum has let the house to another couple with whom they have to share: Nadja (Paula Beer) and her hunky lifeguard boyfriend Devid (Enno Trebs).
Poor Leon soon conceives a hopeless crush on Nadja and gets no sleep listening to her having athletic sex with Devid in the adjacent bedroom; moreover, Felix seems also to have a man crush on the alpha male lifeguard. Leon’s publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) is also about to visit, with what promises to be some damaging notes on his book, while the forest fires, turning the night sky red, convey a strange sense of unease.
In fact, despite the title (the film’s original German title actually translates as “Red Sky”), there isn’t much of a flame in this film. There are some laughs in Leon’s grumpy, maladroit failure to be agreeable with anyone, as well as his knack of saying the wrong thing with Nadja, for which he berates himself afterwards in private like a young Hugh Grant in a Richard Curtis comedy. And there are some nice scenes as they all have dinner together, or hang out at the beach.
The appearance of Helmut signals a supposed new serious shift, and Nadja’s background is revealed. A poem by Heinrich Heine is invoked: Der Asra, about a slave falling in love with a princess. But the tonal change is not really convincing, and I wished that the movie’s potential for lighter comedy had been developed more. Even so, it’s a strong performance from Schubert.
• Afire screened at the Berlin film festival and is released on 25 August in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.