Director – Christian Petzold – 2022 – Germany – Cert. 12a – 102m
Two male friends’ plans to stay in his mother’s woodland house are disrupted by first a car breakdown, then a female guest of his mother’s, and finally forest fires – out in UK cinemas on Friday, August 25th
Summer. Leon (Thomas Schubert from Breathing, Karl Markovics, 2011) and Felix (Langston Uibel) are driving to the latter’s mother’s holiday home on the Baltic coast when their car breaks down. Felix knows a short cut so they go through the woods,. When they reach the cottage, after getting lost, a guest is already there, a young woman Nadja (Paula Beer from Transit, Christian Petzold, 2018; Frantz, François Ozon, 2016), the daughter of a friend of Felix’s mother. At least, her belongings – underwear strewn around the big bedroom, cereal in the kitchen – are there.
Felix phones his mother to learn there’s a double booking. Not to worry – the pair can stay in the small bedroom. Except, Leon can’t sleep at night because of the sound of Nadja enjoying sex with someone through the paper-thin walls.
He doesn’t know how to confront her about this. He moves outside onto the garden pagoda at night to get some sleep, and is awakened by a nude man carrying clothes as he leaves the house.
The two young men are there for a working holiday. Felix is preparing a portfolio for application to art school, while Leon is struggling to complete his novel. This means that Feliix wanders down to the beach while Leon stays at the pagoda in the garden, finding anything to do but write – repeatedly throwing a tennis ball against one of the house walls, for example, but making sure he’s sitting back down ‘working’ when Felix comes back.
Eventually, Felix talks him into coming down to the beach, where Leon recognises the lifeguard as the nude man he saw leaving the house. Felix goes and chats with the lifeguard, Devid (Enno Trebs from The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, 2009), who ends up being invited for supper.
In the middle of the night, Leon is again wakened from sleep by sex sounds. To his surprise, the other occupant of his room is now Nadja, which means that the sex sounds are coming from Felix and Devid.
Leon is particularly tense about an impending visit from his editor Helmut (Matthias Brandt, also from Transit), who has made some disparaging remarks about his manuscript over the phone. Discovering Nadja is selling ice creams on the beach, he asks if she’d like to read it. She does so, only to make similarly disparaging comments. Nevertheless, she comes onto Leon, but he doesn’t know how to respond.
When Helmut visits, he too is invited to stay for supper. But then he is hit by health complications and must be driven to the hospital.
While all this is going on, forest fires rage in the distance and planes fly overhead, presumably to tackle them. Then, one day, the fires are much nearer the house in the woods…
From the title, you’d be forgiven for thinking this a disaster movie about people trying to survive (or not) forest fires. Yet, although it contains that element – including at one point a family of fleeing boars with one of their children on fire at the back, and at another a fire coming over the horizon in the woods – that’s the poignant backdrop for an hilarious, downbeat comedy of manners. With occasional tragic scenes.
Much of the interest is generated by the cast, all of whom are extremely watchable, especially Thomas Schubert whose socially inept presence is hilarious. A lightness of directorial touch and a leisurely pace overall serve the piece well, allowing it to reach heights both comic and, later on, tragic. Much of what happens in between might fairly be described as mundane, yet there’s something both compelling and magnetic about it. This strange holiday might have its ups and downs, but it’s one of which you’ll very much want to be a part.
Afire is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 25th.