Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- courtesy of CMPR

Sophomore slump amid summer fun and forest fires along the Baltic Sea

By Nora Lee Mandel

(New York Premiere in “Spotlight Narrative” at 2023 Tribeca Film Festival)

Afire (Roter Himmel)
Directed and Written by Christian Petzold
Produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber, and Anton Kaiser
In German with English subtitles
103 minutes. Germany. Not Rated
With: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, and Matthias Brandt
Release by Sideshow/Janus - opens in U.S. theaters July 14, 2023

Nobody and no thing are what we may first assume in Afire, Christian Petzold’s 15th film.

Two young men driving out of Berlin for a summer weekend in the woods are not a couple. The country house belongs to the family of the Black man “Felix” (Langston Uibel). Despite their car breakdown, they make it out of the dark woods to hear warnings that forest fires are getting close.

At the house, they find evidence that they are not alone, and are sharing the house with the daughter of a family friend. The White guy “Leon” (Thomas Schubert) whines “I need peace and quiet to work alone”, and keeps nagging “Felix” to do his work instead of going off to swim in the Baltic Sea. “Felix”s assignment for art school is to make a portfolio on a water theme, but he wants to makes portraits of people looking at the ocean.

Worse for the procrastinating “Leon”, their unseen housemate is not alone in the other bedroom, and he can’t sleep for their noise. He is immediately gobsmacked by their Goldilocks when he finally spies “Nadja” (Paula Beer), without knowing anything else about her. Introduced as “the writer”, he’s deep into imposter syndrome. His first novel was favorably-received, but he is struggling mightily to finish his second.

“Leon”s condescension towards the other three is annoying, and it takes a series of jolts for him to accept his comeuppance. “Felix” needs to fix the leaky roof his father had built, and “Leon” is full of excuses to not help. But the lifeguard “Devid” (Enno Trebs), who was so noisy with “Nadja”, eagerly assists while flirting shirtless with “Felix”. “Leon” is jealous when “Nadja” impresses his visiting publisher/mentor “Helmut” (Matthias Brandt), who also encourages “Felix”s photography.

”Leon” may be the most insecure protagonist of a Petzold film, compared to charismatic central figures I reviewed in Jerichow (2008); Dreileben (2011); Barbara (2012); Phoenix (2015); Transit (2018). Influenced by weeks Petzold spent in bed with Covid fever watching the box set of Éric Rohmer films, he flashbacked to his own youthful sophomore slump in 1996, combined with the languid summer romance in a Chekhov short story “The House with the Mezzanine”.

While “Leon” tries to slog away under a pergola, the others enjoy beach, badminton, and ball playing fun. The orange glow they view in the distance is a visual tribute to Rohmer’s cinematic summertime The Green Ray (Le rayon vert) (1968), but the forest fires are as much an ominous threat for the audience as they are to these young German vacationers.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

To the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix

Copyright © 2023