Afire – Summer’s almost gone
In his most recent feature, German filmmaker Christian Petzold observes a group of millennials that is facing a series of wildfires – along with their inner fires, that threaten to burn them even stronger. The film will be released in Romanian cinemas on the 7th of July.
One needs very little time to realize that Afire is a notch above almost everything distributed in Romanian cinemas this year. Nothing shocking about it, since Christian Petzold has durably imposed himself as one of the biggest directors of the past few decades. But one should still underline the true pleasure of coming into contact with a vital and slightly familiar gaze, which demonstrates the same will to stare into the very core of the present piercingly, and the same disposition for risks that won us over in the past. Even in the case of an apparently tame film like Afire, Petzold remains attracted to the recourse to fantasy and myth, which he seemingly mobilizes to self-sabotage his minute generational portrait. This, in turn, gives the sensation that the film is most interesting in its status of a realistic breach that has opened amid surreality: the image is free when it loads up on all of the contradictory powers – document and CGI, memory and fantasy – of the visible.
It’s no wonder that its final moments, when the fire overtakes the frame of this summertime story, were a source of confusion amongst commentators. But this is the film’s wager: as always in the case of Petzold, the examined universe – a vacation home on the shore of the Baltic Sea – is all the more real when it’s capable of violently opening itself up towards additional layers of existence. In this sense, the fire is not (just) an atrocious form of suffering, almost pornographic in nature – it’s a rumor disguised as a discreet shower of soot, it’s an implausible flame that doesn’t even try to hide its computerized origins. Even death by fire turns into reference – a sublime authorial gesture, which nods towards his mentor and former co-scriptwriter Harun Farocki, from whom Petzold learned that an image necessarily elicits another, in a regime of heterogeneity – with the images of another fire, that of Pompeii, where two lovers found their deaths while secretly holding their hands.
Here, Petzold wages a double bet: that of apparent frivolity, which he wins through his light strokes, apt of turning any grave topic matter into the pretext of an art that detests, above all else, to draw attention to its craft. It’s just that Petzold’s films have always resembled the effigy that magnetized them: where Nina Hoss, with her dark and seductive energy, illuminated these enigmatic masterpieces that were Barbara (2012) and, especially, Phoenix (2014), Paula Beer – now in the role of a vaporous young woman, who effortlessly dominates a micro-society of confused men – who steered Petzold’s filmography back onto its lighter, more serene trajectory of one-piece affectations. This is not to say that Afire isn’t charged with desire – the reciprocally frustrated kind that the characters feel for one another, the filmmaker’s desire towards his muse, and so on. On the contrary, the film constantly palpitates, driven by the almost ancestral tension of an artistic act stuck between friendship, danger, and the entire palette of intermediary feelings that turn cinema into a joke with very serious effects.
However, there is one more bet at hand: the political one. In this respect, I believe that the film is rushed, and it proves itself to be slightly greedy when it comes to jumping onto the wagon of the era’s new realities. I begrudge Petzold not just for the somewhat childish impulse to light a shallow fire for the sake of topicality, but much more concerned with the play of light that it generates – the film’s stylized orange is both fake and touching – than it is of the true perils, which it trivializes. Still, let’s say that an element like the fire is, what in one of Éric Rohmer’s films from the eighties – an author with whom Afire shares a certain kind of playful and anthropological sensibility – could have been represented by the new neighborhoods at the edge of Paris, back then still in construction: the background of a scriptwriter’s hypothetical playground, a sort of greenscreen that he could furnish however he desired, depending on the demands of his present, arising from a sort of nonchalance that seems antiquated nowadays, to the same degree that it elicits a wave of admiration. But one could have never accused Rohmer of opportunism: for him, everything was integrated into the project with a visceral aplomb, even when said aplomb was born out of sheer curiosity, or even out of contempt (for example, it is known that Rohmer wasn’t too friendly about ecology). But what about the character of the young gay man of color from his film, who is at one point abandoned to the sway of some well-meaning representational cliches (he’s hedonistic, frail, an “aesthete”). In this addition, one can sense the clumsy solution of a director that is much too willing to make everything fit, to assure himself that he hasn’t lost sight of anything.
This feigned interest has its reasons to disturb. But it also has the great merit of engendering a conclusion. Because, between Chris Marker’s monumental Le Fond de l’air est rouge (1977), dedicated to the global struggle for deliberation and to the leftist ideologies that blossomed in the previous decade, and Afire, the sky remains all the redder as the political ideas it may once have harbored are increasingly diluted into slogans, pretensions, and a slightly annoying navel-gazing. Petzold was right to place a grumpy trouble-fête in the middle of this film, justly performed by Schubert. For all his unpleasantness, this arrogant, almost theatrical individual – what sort of writer that has a modicum of success could be capable of being so idiotic?! –, the film touches an almost universal contemporary malaise, to the same degree to which it sketches a memorable character, who is capable of emancipating himself from any sort of identitarian labels. Brilliant character.
Not enough is said about Petzold as a burlesque writer. Afire is, at times, incredibly funny, like in the formidable sequence in which the female protagonist, performed by Paula Beer, falls off her bike while riding a forest trail, and the male protagonist that is close by shifts from one leg to the other, completely helpless when the girl asks him to put a broken paper bag into one that is still intact. Not to mention the simply iconic scenes at the table, which Petzold frames in accordance with the hormonal desires of each of the characters, creating sparks out of nothing. More than once, Afire seems to be the kind of film that was constrained to be more conventional than it wished to be – but in this constraint, which excellently condemns the undigested excessed of a certain type of contemporary festival fare, one can also find a considerable amount of freedom.
Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer