Monday, June 12, 2023

Look Around, The World is Burning!

Afire (2023) - Petzold Afire As the Canadian wildfire rages on and its smoke, carried on by the wind, covers the entire US Eastern coastline in thick orange hazardous air last week, Christian Petzold's new film, Afire, playing in this year's Tribeca Film Fest and coming out in US theaters in July, is such a prescient film about the world we live in now. You think Petzold shifts gears and concocts a seemingly a lighthearted summer fling story during covid? No. Quite the contrary. His previous films, Phoenix, Transit and Undine are laced with potent German history and reflecting on 21 century living. But at a glance, Afire doesn't seem too concerned about the German history, but it's still very much steeped in Petzold's usual themes: guilt, shame, forgetfulness and loneliness. And the Baltic sea set Afire is very much about the present- the world on the brink of ecological catastrophy. Afire is distinctly a Petzold's version of a 'summer movie'.

We are introduced to Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel), unlikely friends going to the Baltic seaside where Felix's mom has a summer house. The car breaks down and they have to walk the rest of the way. It is apparent that Leon is the designated pessimist of the two; too serious for his own good kind of a guy. Once they get to the house, they find that it is already occupied by Nadja (Paula Beer). They learn that Nadja is a family friend and now they will need to share the house during their stay. Leon is doubly disgruntled because he needs peace and quiet to finish his second novel, incongruously titled, Club Sandwich, but Nadja's nightly activity with a local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) is just too loud.

After meeting the other occupants a couple of days later, Leon keeps being a major A-hole and a party pooper every chance he gets; whenever asked to come to swim and join them, he coldly tells Nadja, "Work doesn't allow it." a phrase that he instantly regrets saying right after, which fills him with much self-loathing. He just can't help it. His arrogance and superiority complex always get the better of himself, while struggling with writing his 'masterpiece'. But, when alone, he bounces the rubber ball off the house wall and falls asleep on the patio in front of the house that he claimed as his workspace.

To Leon's surprise, there's a budding romance between Felix and Devid. It's more like Leon is too obsessed with his own little world, he hardly notices anything else around him. It's like a forest fire that is raging in the distant which lights up the part of the sky red every night. It won't reach us, they tell themselves.

Nadja gives Leon every chance to open up, but his stupid pride keeps walling off her friendly gestures. At one of those of her attempts, he reluctantly agrees for her to read his manuscript. She reads it in one sitting one afternoon, as he nervously walks back and forth from distance. She returns it to him, "It's bad and you know it too." What does she know? She is just a seasonal ice-cream seller at a nearby town. He bitterly tells himself.

When Leon's agent, Helmut (Matthias Brant) comes into town to go over his manuscript and decides to stay for dinner which Nadja provides, it is revealed that Nadja is a literary scholar doing her Ph.D. She recites Heinrich Heine's poem Asra, about an Arab tribe, who perish when they love. Felix, who's in love with Devid now, so moved by the poem, asks her to recite it again. Foreshadowing what's to come.

There's a striking scene, where the ashes of the nearby forest fire descending upon the group. It's a surreal moment - mixture of beauty and imminent danger. It's one of the showstopper in Petzold's cinematic world. Helmut collapses at the same moment and must be taken to the hospital. Fire is fast approaching, and Leon witness firsthand the destructive power of all consuming fire.

Afire is very much a Petzold's version of a summer film like that of Eric Rohmer's (which he says he watched a lot before conceiving Afire, during the covid lockdown) and other French summer fling films but with stinging message. Instead of summer love, we get Leon, our anti-hero completely blindsided by his self-centered world view and misses out on life. And even ecological disasters at his doorstep can't make him see what's in front of him.

The film tells a lot about the self-absorbed world in the face of climate change and global catastrophe unfolding. You might ask, 'Leon can't be that thick headed. How is he a friend with good natured, younger, optimistic Felix?' 'There's no chemistry between Leon and Nadja, how can he declare his love for her?' and so on. Afire is also about creative process and self-reflection. And it's beautifully, deliciously constructed by the master storyteller. It's as if Petzold saying get out of your head once in a while and look around you because if you don't, it might be already too late.

No comments:

Post a Comment