Reckoning with apocalypse in 'Afire'

Note: This article contains spoilers for the ending of “Afire.” 

In many ways, Christian Petzold’s “Afire” (“Roter Himmel” in its original German, literally translated as Red Sky) suits its genre as a summer movie. Humorously dour main character Leon (Thomas Schubert) is a struggling writer, so pathologically self-obsessed and pessimistic that it’s hindering any progress on his second novel. He visits a beach, finds himself, then manages to reconnect with the world around him, causing his writing to improve — it’s very Rohmer-esque, both aesthetically and thematically. But in “Afire,” this artistic inspiration comes at a high cost: death, illness and a portent of apocalypse in the form of an enclosing wall of a forest fire.

For all the devastation of its third-act twist, the film opens rather innocuously. We first meet Leon on the road with his friend, aspiring photography student Felix (Langston Uibel), to the summer cottage owned by the latter’s mother, ostensibly to work. Leon is preparing for the arrival of his editor, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), while Felix searches for subjects for his application portfolio. Very quickly, elements of interpersonal tension are introduced as their car begins to break down. “Something’s not right … it’s misfiring,” Felix says – the first lines of dialogue in the film. Leon dismisses him, stating, “I can’t hear it.” This conversation goes on to define the relationship between Leon and all the other characters. His ego is so great that his perception of the world seems to be through a set of mirrored glasses – he cannot help but project himself into every situation and tailor his interpretation of reality in a way that satisfies his own biases. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that this mindset prevents him from getting along with nearly everyone he meets. Upon arriving at the cottage, they are greeted by an unexpected roommate, Nadja (Paula Beer) – free-spirited, forthright, perpetually clad in a flowing red dress as dedicated to the high summer aesthetic as the cottage’s sun-bleached sea and thatched roof. Felix is quickly seduced by the possibilities of summer – he goes swimming in the ocean and invites Nadja’s lover Devid (Enno Trebs) to home-cooked dinners and nighttime badminton games. The three meld into a single bright note of idyllic contentment, archetypal summer loving; this transformation is completed when Felix and Devid begin a romantic and sexual relationship as well. Leon, a glowering figure in full-length blacks and grays, refuses to participate in it all, intentionally antagonizing Nadja and Devid despite his growing fascination with the former. He’s also always the first to remind Felix that they’re here to work, not play. 

But for all his dogged dedication to his craft, he has little to show for it: Nadja, who’s revealed to be a literature Ph.D. candidate, and his editor Helmut both give his manuscript negative reviews, manifesting his close-held insecurities about it. From the excerpts we hear, it’s clear the issue lies in his inability to embody any sort of emotional rawness, to relate to complex and destabilizing feelings such as love. By choosing to describe the physical instead, he turns a mother’s breastfeeding of a baby mechanical and creepy. He cannot seem to exit himself nor his experience. 

Nadja calls direct attention to this when, in a fit of anger, he misinterprets her comforting Helmut after his diagnosis of late-stage cancer with them making fun of him. “Are you even aware of anything? Do you see anything happening around you? Did you really listen to Helmut? Do you even know what Ward Four is? … It’s not always about you, you asshole!” she yells at him, before storming off. In Petzold’s work, this is damning; an isolated artist is no artist at all. Instead, it is those who can abandon themselves, who can thus love another full-heartedly, who find success. Devid finds a tractor that can tow the broken-down car when no mechanics are available; Felix’s sea-based portraits and the depth of Nadja’s knowledge of poetry are complimented by Helmut at dinner. As such, the initial failure of Leon’s love for Nadja appears not surprising, but rather, inevitable. 

Ironically, it is his scrapes with isolation and destruction, caused by the fire and its apocalyptic effects, that prove his salvation. The first time Leon accepts Nadja’s invitation of affection is at the hospital, awaiting news of Helmut after his collapse in a rain of ash; they fall asleep outside the emergency department, their heads resting against one another’s. Seeing Devid and Felix’s charred corpses locked in each other’s arms is what ultimately enables him to express, in writing, his feelings about Nadja and to cry for the company of others. In encouraging his and our contemplation of apocalypse, and reconfiguring death and destruction as regenerative forces, “Afire” makes relevant once more the cinematic archetype of the stagnating creative to a postmodern, sometimes pre-apocalyptic-seeming world. 

Duke Cinematic Arts’ film screening program Screen/Society screened “Afire” at the Rubenstein Arts Center Sept. 15. More information about Screen/Society’s upcoming programming, all of which is free and open to the public, can be found here.


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