The Movie Waffler New Release Review - AFIRE | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - AFIRE

Afire review
A narcissistic writer's stay at a friend's holiday home leads to self-doubt amid encroaching forest fires.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Christian Petzold

Starring: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Matthias Brandt

Afire poster

Writers, huh? What a bunch of preening, narcissistic, self-absorbed plonkers, am I right? At least that's the common stereotype, and to be fair it's one many writers are happy to embrace. Take Leon, the loathsome pro/antagonist of writer/director Christian Petzold's Afire, which following mermaid fantasy Undine is the second in a planned quartet of films centred around the four elements of water, fire, earth and air. Played by Thomas Schubert, Leon is almost a parodic portrait of the artist as a surly young man. After seeing mild success with his first novel, Leon is in the process of finishing its followup. Trouble is, to borrow Donald Sutherland's self-assessment of his own novel in Animal House, it's a "piece of shit." And Leon is well aware of this.

Afire review

In the naïve hope of reworking the novel before a fateful meeting with his publisher (Lars von Trier lookalike Matthias Brandt), Leon heads to the shores of Germany's Baltic coast with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) for a stay at the holiday home of the latter's family. While Felix bounds enthusiastically in the direction of the beach, Leon insists on staying put to get some work done, but ends up pottering about and throwing a tennis ball against the wall.

Leon's inability to focus on his writing is compounded by the arrival of Nadja (Paula Beer), a young woman staying at the house for the summer while she mans an ice cream stall at the beach. Because Nadja is played by Paula Beer, Leon is immediately infatuated, but Nadja is hooking up with Devid (Enno Trebs), a hunky local lifeguard.

Afire review

Leon's insecurities see him lash out at others. He mocks Felix's plan for a photographic portfolio based on portraits of people staring at the sea. When Devid proves himself a natural storyteller in his relaying of a dinner table joke, Leon resorts to classism, mocking his job as a "rescue swimmer." Felix and Devid brush it off, distracted by their growing mutual attraction, but Nadja doesn't stand for Leon's bullshit. Insisting on reading his novel, she dismisses it as "shit." Initially Leon consoles himself that this is the worthless appraisal of a lowly ice cream seller, but when Nadja's own literary talents are revealed it's a dagger in the ego of Leon.

It's not hard to imagine that Petzold has created the character of Leon as a form of self-assessment, like throwing darts at a dartboard upon which is pinned his own portrait. Of the many portrayals of the worst elements of those who choose the vocation of writing, Leon's might be the most unflattering. Ultimately however, Petzold asks for some sympathy for his put-upon protagonist, but I'm not sure it's ever earned, and his semi-redemption relies on a late plot development that comes off as a little tone deaf. It's also heavily implied that both Nadja and Felix are attracted to the oblivious Leon, and you'll likely be baffled as to how anyone would want to spend more than two minutes in his company.

Afire review

But with the remove of a screen we happily spend close to two hours in his company and that of the others in his group. Petzold has crafted a compelling drama with an unlikeable but fascinating and dare I say it, relatable central character. As played by the beguiling Beer, one of the few modern actresses who possesses that classical movie star quality, Nadja is tossed among this bunch of men like a match in a petrol can, igniting passions both physical and intellectual. Like Leon, we can't take our eyes off her. If you've ever had a crush on a teacher who scolded your work, you'll relate to Leon's hurt at her brutally honest hands.

While all this human drama is playing out there's the impending catastrophe of encroaching forest fires. The characters assure themselves that the fire is distant enough not to affect them, but the sky in the background slowly turns a deeper shade of red, like the slowly heating rings of an untended hob. Petzold's timely environmental commentary echoes Leon's self-consumption. Leon can't see the forest for the trees until the trees are ablaze.

 is in UK/ROI cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from August 25th.

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