Review by Sean Boelman
Christian Petzold has gained recognition in the cinephile community for making some of the most human dramas there are. Afire is unfussy as usual for Petzold, taking some of the common tropes of the seaside romance genre and providing a refreshing riff on them, with the thematic richness and brilliant direction characteristic of Petzold’s work.
The film follows a writer and an artist who take refuge in a cabin by the sea looking for inspiration to complete their latest work, where they meet a transfixing young woman as the forest surrounding them is engulfed in wildfire. Critics at Tribeca saw this movie as the smoke from the Canadian wildfires still lingered in the city, giving the film an almost uncanny additional level of honesty from what it may have otherwise had.
For the first half of the movie, it’s a relatively straightforward, if entirely unfussy melodrama. There are some elements of a love triangle forming, but Petzold doesn’t allow the film to lean too heavily into tropes and histrionics. In the final third, the movie becomes a bit more exaggerated, but the symbolism is so strong and poetic that it works quite well.
As is the case with many literary dramas, the focus of Petzold’s criticism is the ego, as the novelist with a successful debut struggles to follow it up. However, Petzold brings a distinctively modern approach to this familiar formula, using the premise to explore the male gaze in a refreshingly honest and skewering way.
Petzold’s character work in the film is fascinating, because he gives us a protagonist who is not exactly likable. The character is conceited and often behaves selfishly, yet Petzold’s approach to the character is surprisingly compelling. By the time the movie reaches its riveting final act, viewers will be emotionally invested in their arc.
The film is grounded by three exceptional performances by Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, and Langston Uibel. Schubert and Beer, in particular, have excellent — and complicated — chemistry together. Their dynamic is unique in that it’s not romantic in a straightforward sense, although there is that tension there, and Schubert and Beer pull off that balance quite well. Matthias Brant is also noteworthy in a supporting role.
The cinematography in the movie is predictably stunning, provided by frequent Petzold collaborator Hans Fromm. In its native German, the film’s title is “Roter Himmel” — which translates directly to “Red Sky” — and the movie brilliantly uses the backdrop of the forest fires, along with the seaside setting, to create some truly stunning visuals.
Afire has one of the most simple stories in Petzold’s recent work, but that doesn’t mean the storytelling is simplistic. Transfixing visuals, nuanced performances, and excellent use of symbolism make this another restrainedly poetic work from the brilliant German filmmaker.
Afire screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.