The films of Christian Petzold often feature a man thunderstruck by a woman, and so it is with Afire (Roter Himmel), the second of Petzold’s “elements” movies and the second to star Paula Beer as the focus of enchantment.
In Undine Beer played a water sprite in human form, though Petzold never explicitly said so. Here she might be a fire sprite in human form. Petzold never tells us that either. But she’s dressed in red throughout, which possibly is a clue, and for the duration of the film, which plays out on the Baltic Coast, there is a fire is raging through the nearby forests and it threatens to engulf the holiday home where the action all takes place.
Petzold teases that this is going to be an adaptation of a fairy tale with his opening scene – two friends lost in the woods en route a holiday home on the coast. They do not meet a hungry wolf, an old witch or three bears. Instead, when they finally reach the holiday home they were seeking, the find a young woman, Nadja (Beer). Felix (Langston Uibel) and Leon (Thomas Schubert) thought it would be just the two of them, but the holiday home belongs to Felix’s family and, unbeknown to all, his mother has double booked the two friends with Nadja for the duration. They won’t mind sharing, will they?
They do. Or, more specifically, Leon does. He’s a writer who had been hoping to finish his latest novel in the peace and quiet, but instead has to listen to Nadja having sex through the paper-thin walls each night while he fails to get any sleep. Felix, who is also on a mission – a college photography project – couldn’t care less. He’s everything Leon isn’t – friendly, open, sporty and youthful, whereas Leon looks like he can’t wait to be old, so his grumpiness will seem more natural.
Schubert is the star of the film. His character is the one on a “journey”, it’s Leon who has an arc, and Schubert’s name is first in the credits. But Beer is the most important character. What we see is what we get of Leon and Felix. And when a hunky lifeguard turns up to add a bit more friction, what we see of Devid (Enno Trebs) is what we get too.
But with Nadja that isn’t the case. She is a seasonal worker selling ice cream in the local tourist town. But as time goes on more is revealed about her nature, her background, her accomplishments and her character. She might also be a fire sprite too, of course, though that is never said.
At one point Nadja recalls a line from Heinrich Heine, about “the quake of love”, and then recites his poem Der Asra, about a sultan’s daughter who bewitches all who see her. Petzold has her recite it twice, just in case we didn’t get it.
The movie is bewitching too. Shot in absolute crystal clarity by Petzold’s regular DP Hans Fromm, it is straightforward and untricksy, superficially at least, but gurgles away below, like a dark pastiche of one of those French movies in which middle class artistic people are assailed by self doubt in a beautiful setting while a tight-breasted beauty acts as a muse.
Beer is, simply, beguiling, but Schubert is really the one to watch as he runs through all the possible variations on the pissy face. At one point halfway through Leon tries to smile and can’t. At the end he actually does and the release is seismic.
Uibel and Trebs fade somewhat from view as the focus shifts increasingly to Schubert and Beer (sounds like a fun night out). It is in many respects a Harlequin/Mills & Boon style old school romance. Miserable and masterful meets chirpy and subordinate. Except, a fact that Leon has to struggle to get his head round, Nadja is in charge and he is, in every single respect that matters to him, outgunned.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023