' ' Cinema Romantico: Afire

Wednesday, January 31, 2024


Beware all ye who enter Christian Petzold’s cunning German drama “Afire” in search of a likable protagonist; Leon (Thomas Schubert) is anything but. He’s a novelist, for God’s sake, one trying to put the finishing touches on his second book, a book called “Ham Sandwich,” for God’s sake, and who has tagged along with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) on a retreat to the country to do just that. As played by Schubert and costumed by Katharina Ost, Leon is a lumpy, grumpy square, walking, talking indigestion, truly bringing the word dyspeptic to life, his resemblance to James Corden turning that try-hard inside-out into a never-really-try-at-all, or something. Mostly, Leon masquerades like he’s working, and gets huffy with Felix when he asks Leon to go along to the beach because it will drag him away from the work he is pretending to do, and gets even huffier with their unexpected third house guest Nadja (Paula Beer) keeping them up all hours of the night because she’s having, shall we say, a bit too much fun in the next room. Rather than confront her, or engage with her, he spies on her, and he then he spies on Felix, too, and an acquaintance (Enno Trebs) with whom Felix makes fast friends, peeping on life, evoked in Petzold’s keen point-of-view shots and underlined in Schubert’s air and expressions of jealousy and petulance. 

It’s an arty and sometimes electric manifestation of the observation in Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” about existing merely as a witness, standing around watching, refusing to get in the middle of it, and which becomes all the more dire by virtue of a raging forest fire that gradually encircles them; for all intents and purposes, Felix is standing around watching the world burn. Leon, however, almost proves too prickly, making it difficult to believe he and Felix would be friends in the first place, or that Nadja would take such interest in him, flaws that can be written off by the deliberately questionable POV only up to a point. And if the conclusion initially seems to traffic in the perpetual myth that fiction is best culled from real life, ultimately it suggests something closer to a writer writing his way into real life, and which might have resonated with greater depth of feeling had the surrounding characters left a mark. 

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