Afire

Frame from the film Afire
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By EDU TERUKI OTSUKA & IVONE DARÉ RABELLO*

Considerations about the film Christian petzold

Afire, by Christian Petzold, presents an involuntary meeting between four young people and the resulting conflicts. Writer Leon (Thomas Shubert) accompanies Felix (Langston Uibel) to his friend's family's summer house so that they can both carry out their commitments there, away from the hustle and bustle of Berlin. Leon needs to finish his second novel; Felix prepares a photographic portfolio to apply to an Art School.

In the very first scenes, while the photographer notices problems with the car he is driving, the writer remains indifferent, immersed in listening to in my mind,[I] which already indicates his alienation from objective reality. Then, an atmosphere of suspense is suggested: the car breaks down, they have to abandon it and head to the village on foot, cutting through the forest. Not knowing exactly which way to go, Felix proposes that Leon wait for him while he tries to take a shortcut.

Alone, Leon, frowning, gets angry with the situation. In a crescendo, he seems to fear being in a forest region when it begins to get dark, and is frightened by the noise of helicopters and bird sounds. The atmosphere of fear suggests conventions of the horror genre which, however, are soon broken when Felix returns and scares his friend in a game that ends up making them laugh. But, upon arriving at their destination, a new surprise awaits them. When taking the scene, the camera waits for them from the perspective of inside the house, returning to genre conventions.[ii]

In fact, without them expecting anyone to be occupying the place, they find it in disarray, which once again disturbs the friends' initial plan, much to Leon's further irritation. The mystery is promptly resolved when Felix calls his mother and discovers that Nadja (Paula Beer) is there. But her presence disturbs Leon, as he cannot sleep due to the sounds in the girl's room, where she and a partner enjoy sexual pleasures; At dawn, he sees a naked man leave the house. When Nadja is warned about the discomfort this causes, everything seems to be able to adjust.

However, Leon continues to be irritated by any breach of his expectations, from the mere fact that Felix washes the dishes that Nadja left dirty, to his friends' insistence on inviting him to the beach, where he meets Nadja's lover, the “rescue swimmer” Devid (Enno Trebs), the lack of interest and disregard for the idea of ​​his friend’s portfolio, the refusal to help fix the leak in the roof, among several other antisocial attitudes, always claiming that he needed to work, when in fact nothing or produces almost nothing. When there is no one in the house, he plays with a ball thrown against the wall.

In a certain reinterpretation of “summer films”, in the style of Eric Rohmer (whose influence Christian Petzold admits[iii]), the relationships between the four characters become complex, given the behavior of Leon, a writer encapsulated in himself, averse to domestic tasks, to pleasant sociable relationships, to nature itself (in one of the most ironic scenes, Leon finally goes to the beach, but it covers itself almost entirely and does not enter the sea).

It is he who interests us here, as this character reveals the twist made by Christian Petzold in the so-called “summer films”, centered on romantic passions. Somehow, this passion appears – in a kind of love at first sight from the moment Leon sees Nadja's slender and beautiful figure, without coming into contact with her, however.

While walking through the village, the writer sees her working as an ice cream seller and refuses to wait for her to return together. But she ends up finding him, sleeping on a bench. Leon talks to her, tries to apologize for his rude behavior and explains himself: he is anxious because his editor will come to comment on his second book, Club Sandwich. The girl finds the title strange, he gets angry and, when she asks him if she can read the manuscript, Leon refuses and tells him that he once told one of his stories to Felix's cleaning lady and she commented that it was very corny.

Later, the writer apologizes to her for the comment and gives her his manuscript to read. Nadja does so immediately and tells him that she didn't like it and that he himself knows that the book “is rubbish”. Leon is furious and, walking alone, does not accept Nadja's opinion and calls her a “damn ice cream maker”, thinking it is obvious that she did not understand the work.

The story continues. Helmut (Mathias Brandt), Leon's editor, arrives at home and, upon reading excerpts from his manuscript, tries to make him understand the insufficiency and meaninglessness of the style, which is far-fetched and pretentious, in addition to his irrelevant subject matter, concentrating on it. if in the narrator's amorous daydreams in counterpoint with objective reality (which, in some way, gives ironic meaning to the reiteration of the song in my mind, as a figuration of the personality of Leon and the narrator of Club Sandwich).

Furthermore, to Leon's greater irritation and resentment, Helmut accepts Nadja's invitation to dinner at the house, contrary to the writer's previous plans. During the conversation at the table, the editor is interested in Félix's photos and, above all, in Nadja, who, in fact, was only there because she hadn't gotten a scholarship to do her doctorate at Heine. In a decisive scene, she recites “Azra”:

Every day, the beautiful daughter
From the sultan takes a tour,
In the afternoon, by the fountain
That boils with clear waters.

Every day, the slave lies,
In the afternoon, at the fountain
That boils; and your face
It's clearer every day.

One day, behold, the princess
He asks him sharply:
Say, slave, what is your name,
Your land and your tribe!

The young man speaks: my name is
Mohamed, I was born in Yemen,
I am an Azra, whom love
It's a deadly poison.[iv]

Everyone is moved, except Leon, who, upon finding Nadja alone, accuses her of having made him an idiot by not previously mentioning that he studied literature.

The editor's stay is suddenly interrupted when, due to feeling ill, he is admitted to a hospital. Nadja notices that he is in the oncology ward and, when asking Helmut about his condition, he tells her that it is serious. Leon, however, doesn't realize anything, except that his plans won't come true; the discussion of his manuscript will not take place and Helmut will return to Berlin ahead of schedule, but not before telling him to completely abandon Club Sandwich and try something new. When they returned, when they argued, the writer accused Nadja of telling Helmut what she thought of the manuscript, inciting him to devalue it. The young woman then tells him that he doesn't observe what happens around her and, therefore, he also didn't realize that Helmut was in the oncology department. Nadja then tells him that he “sees nothing”.

As can be seen in this synopsis, apparently everything revolves around the sociability relationships between Leon, Felix, Nadja and Devid. However, they are gravitating towards something much bigger, which no one, except Nadja, seems to be aware of. Summer town with few tourists, constant noises of helicopters crossing the sky, ash reaching the city: a catastrophe is underway: the fires – constant in the nearby areas – are out of control. But nothing worries them, because, as they say many times, the wind that comes from the sea prevents the fires from reaching them. Even with glaring evidence, like the ash reaching them, or the reddened horizon, they continue to feel safe.

When Devid and Felix, now lovers, decide to go get the car in which Leon and his friend had arrived and which remained on the side road, next to the forest, calamity hits them all. The fire, which set the bodies of animals and the entire forest on fire, fell on the lovers, who died in each other's arms.

There is a fundamental change in the film composition here: the images are superimposed on the images by the voice of a narrator, in 3rd person, while the scenes continue. When Nadja sees the entwined bodies of her dead friends, she cries and Leon seems impassive. However, the voice off narrates that, instead of crying, he thinks of the image of the lovers in Pompeii, without being able to mourn what was actually in front of him. They look at each other, she leaves the hospital; upon returning to the house, Leon finds that Nadja had left. At night, alone, he waits on the beach and cries for the death of his friends, for the absence of the young woman. The voice off narrates the later moments of the protagonist's life but, in the next scene, what we see is Helmut reading the novel, whose last sentence is “The sea was shining”.

This is how, at first reading, the film deals with worldly and personal relationships, in a situation that, promised to be promising, ends up deteriorating until death. Its true meaning, however, escapes this apprehension of the most visible content, since a new twist reveals the meaning of Leon's experience. Just before the final scene, when the voice-over reveals itself to be the voice of Helmut reading Leon's new novel, it can be inferred that what we saw, as spectators, is also, in addition to the material of the film's plot, the material of the new book that the writer had written as a result of his summer trip, but, in the novel, from the perspective of a narrator who criticizes himself by showing himself to be narcissistic, passive-aggressive and oblivious to reality.

Avoiding corniness, Leon now produces the book, which is well received by the publisher. When Helmut tells him that he talked to Felix's mother, Leon states that he changed the characters' names, which would avoid legal problems. But the editor tells him that the contact with her happened for another reason: Helmut wants to include two of the photos taken by Felix in the book: the sea and a woman from behind, probably Nadja. Leon just looks at them, without expressing any emotion. Helmut asks him to leave, as he needs to receive care from the nurse, and so we know that he is in a clinic.

In the final scene, Leon sees Nadja, who is there out of solidarity with Helmut. They see each other from a distance and she looks at him with affection. In the close-up on Leon, for the first time in the entire story, he smiles tenderly. End the film and in my mind returns in the credits, reinforcing that the protagonist's inner life – with his daydreams – overlaps the perception of objective reality. If Leon's new novel would suggest, from the narrator's perspective, something like a gain in critical consciousness, the final scenes seem to indicate that Leon believes that his desires regarding Nadja may come true. The catastrophe resulted in a book and a perspective of loving happiness.

How to understand what was promised from the title, Afire (something like On fire)[v]? What relationship can be established between the devastating fire, the indifference of young people in the summer house (according to the first title imagined by the director) and the figure of the presumptuous and narcissistic writer?

As the film focuses on the negative characterization of the character, to, in the end, configure him in another way, in a turn of sympathy, must it be understood that the tragic experience of the catastrophe transformed him? Would there be a glimmer that a certain type of intellectual – of which Leon is an emblematic figure – could emerge from the indifference towards the collapse announced since the beginning of the plot and undergo some inner transformation? Would your crying on the beach indicate self-criticism? Would this personal transformation be a way for experiences to actually become experience and commitment against the catastrophic reality, beyond self-criticism?

In the interview with Girish, Christian Petzold comments that he had an aggressive reaction towards Leon, because he saw himself in that character and felt disturbed by her. Some touches of mockery regarding the writer's passive-aggressive behavior seek to alleviate the discomfort faced by the figure of the intellectual who isolates himself from the world to create his art.

But, with the rejection of club sandwich, the unresolved passion, the environmental catastrophe and the death of Felix and Devid, what results from this experience is only material for a story of personal transformation... But something remains ambivalently ironic: the entire tragedy is material for a (love?) story. as if to indicate that in fact the center is in Leon, who, pretending to have transformed, learns nothing except his own previous follies. And his change, in the final scene, with the smile he had never given before, perhaps indicates that, once the narcissistic illusion has been fed again, everything has already been resolved... But perhaps the writer remains blind to the collective dimension of the environmental catastrophe.

Announced in title Afire, the environmental disaster, which culminates in the death of Felix and Devid, is thus treated as an event that motivates the supposed transformation of an intellectual who, however, elaborates his experience in a narrative whose emphasis is on the private dimension of the events. The figure of this writer also gives the fabric of another type of catastrophe, not just the environmental one: that of the blindness of the intellectual in relation to the threat to collective life. The irony of the film's point of view helps us understand it.

*Edu Teruki Otsuka He is a professor at the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at USP. Author of  Marks of the catastrophe: urban experience and cultural industry in Rubem Fonseca, João Gilberto Noll and Chico Buarque (Studio). [https://amzn.to/3v8YnIt]

*Ivone Daré Rabello is a senior professor at the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at USP. Author, among other books, of A song on the sidelines: a reading of the poetry of Cruz e Sousa (nankim). [https://amzn.to/48wxvR0]

Reference


Afire (Roter Himmel)
Germany, 2022, 102 minutes
Direction and screenplay: Christian Petzold
Cast: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt.

Notes


[I] The importance of the song for the meaning of the film is already shown from the beginning, in the first sequence and is reaffirmed in others. In one of them, while the camera focuses on Leon watching a badminton game, in my mind returns as an extradiegetic comment, insinuating that the protagonist is daydreaming. At the end of the film, the recurrence of the song opens up different perspectives for understanding the end of the story. The lyrics, translated here, give evidence that the film's point of view leaves the protagonist's characterization ambivalent: “In my mind/ In my mind/ Love will leave us, it will leave us blind/ We will be living in a place where We like / What will make us, will make us find? / In my mind / In my mind / In my mind / We will live free and wild / We will be living a perfect life / Love will make us, make us find / In my mind/".

[ii] In the interview with Devika Girish, Petzold comments: “When you show a house in a film, you can do [one of] two things. You can place your camera outside and the characters arrive, take out the keys, open the door and you see them disappearing into the house. Or you can wait for them indoors. There is a big difference: the first says: 'This is summer, this is the first day', while the second says: 'Something is not in order'” (“Interview: Christian Petzold on Afire”. In: Film Comment. 20/mar/2023).

[iii] During the Berlin festival, where the film won the Grand Jury Prize, Petzold said that he reviewed Rohmer's films and decided to explore the terrain of “summer films”, ignored by German cinema.

[iv] In translation by André Vallias (In: Huh huh? Poet of opposites. São Paulo: perspective/Goethe Institut, 2011, p. 291)

[v] The first title imagined by the director was Those who are happy (The happy ones), but for copyright reasons he changed it to Red Sky. However, when he found out about the title in English, he thought it was better than his (Cf.: cited interview).


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