Afire

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By JOSÉ GERALDO COUTO*

Commentary on the film by Christian Petzold

Even though it outlines a gesture of hope at the end, Afire, by German Christian Petzold, is a work about disaster. Disaster of the individual, disaster of the planet. Winner of the grand jury prize in Berlin and highlight of the recent São Paulo International Film Festival, the film has already been shown in Brazilian cinemas.

The film begins with a setback. Two young friends, writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) and art student Felix (Langston Uibel), are driving along a deserted road in the middle of a forest when their car breaks down and they are forced to walk the remaining kilometers to their house. beach where they intend to settle down for a few days to work, Leon on his new book and Felix on a photographic portfolio.

Upon arriving at the house, another unpleasant surprise: the place is already occupied by someone else, the young Nadja (Paula Beer), a friend of Felix's mother, the owner of the house, which forces the friends to share a smaller room.

unstable balance

From then on, unforeseen events occur, with the arrival of two other characters – a lifeguard and an editor –, each time causing a new disturbance in the already unstable balance between the guests.

It is not necessary to anticipate the chain of events and situations here, but only to draw attention to the essential thing: the way in which each of the friends reacts to the unexpected. While the sociable Felix maintains an open, active and affectionate attitude, the sullen Leon closes himself in his cocoon, making his work a shield against the rough edges of the world.

The backdrop of this character study is the ominous advance of a forest fire. (Afire, an international title held in Brazil, means “In Flames”; the original German title, red sky, is “Red Sky”.) One of the merits of the film is the interaction between the forces of nature and the characters’ little world. The contrast between the blue luminescence of the sea and the redness of the night sky remains in memory, ultimately, as its strongest visual mark.

Christian Petzold gradually announces the approach of the disaster: first helicopters flying over the region, then sirens, later fire engines, animals fleeing through the forest and, finally, the flames themselves. All of this spread throughout the narrative, and intertwined with the human drama.

Spy of life

But the most interesting thing about the filmmaker's approach is the fact that the character we follow closely, almost as in a first-person narrative, is precisely the least sympathetic, Leon. It is through his resentful and suspicious gaze that we see the action develop around him, especially the lightness and grace with which the other characters move and relate to each other.

By forcing us to assume the point of view of this narcissistic and insecure guy, a spy on life, at the same time that it catches him on the wrong foot, “in moments of carelessness”, revealing his vulnerability and his contradictions, the film makes us uncomfortable with self-observation, instead of the reassuring catharsis proposed by so many films that induce identification with “positive characters”.

This painful journey of self-knowledge and opening up to a conflicted world is what Christian Petzold leads us to share. Nothing less.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brasiliense).

Originally published on the Instituto Moreira Salles website [https://ims.com.br/blog-do-cinema/afire-por-jose-geraldo-couto/].

Reference


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


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