Directors like Christian Petzold operate on another level of human connectivity. Petzold’s Transit and Phoenix remain two masterful showcases about the depth of human connection. In many ways, Afire continues Petzold’s impeccable run. While some may struggle with Afire due to its impeccable subtlety, the powerful conclusion leaves the audience gasping for air.
Struggling author Leon (Thomas Schubert) wishes to escape the world. His friend Felix (Langston Uibel) promises a stay at his mother’s house by the sea. Leon and Felix become aware of another tenet to the house when they arrive. Nadja (Paula Beer) works in the seaside town and casually sees local rescue swimmer Devid (Enno Trebs). However, intellectual curiosities blend, and relationships become unmoored from their foundations. The summer is heating up, and their worlds will change.
Petzold weaves a brilliant story, slowly building the emotions throughout. The simmering tension between characters drives the narrative, and Petzold uses this to perfection. The way he lets each character needle until they’ve become an obsession for someone else is astonishing. It’s the tiny ticks that become fixations that become friendships. Yes, the actors bring chemistry. Yet Petzold’s screenplay remains the triumph of Afire. Most importantly, he forces its characters to admit their lack of control to grow.
Much of Afire features characters trying to find their moment in the sun. All Leon wants is a moment of quiet, yet that would destroy the good times being had by his temporary roommates. His pessimism becomes a drag on the others, who begin to bond and obsess over each other.
Leon’s sly glances indicate desire sparking, and its reciprocity from Nadja makes for an interesting core relationship. They may never become lovers, and given the events of Afire, the well may be poised for any hope of a future relationship. Instead, the interpersonal nuances of their relationship lead to starts and stops. They become friends until Leon seemingly admits he sees Nadja as below him. She sees talent, but holding him to account to create better art angers him. They push each other, creating a unique intimacy.
This stands in stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky life Felix lives. Uibel creates a complete physical character in Felix, using his long arms and legs to give the young man the appearance of constant motion. If Felix and Leon are together when they arrive, Felix makes it clear he cannot remain in Leon’s dour shadow. His focus on life, rebirth, and fluidity makes him a near-elemental figure in the story. Considering his art project focuses on the ocean, it’s no surprise. Petzold and Uibel make the most of the performance live in the metaphor.
While other characters, including Devid, come through the story, these three create an ethos for Afire. The ways humans interact, love, share a moment, and battle are all present in every second. Afire, like Phoenix, leaves on the strongest moments of emotional catharsis. It’s truly special to see a master so in-tune with their work. Yet Petzold once again proves he is our most consistent and talented interpersonal storyteller.