In ‘Afire,’ a vacation in the woods coincides with climate change

"Afire" has opened at IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center
“Afire” has opened at IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center
Sideshow/Janus Films

How many horror films begin with the decision to go on vacation in the country? German director Christian Petzold’s “Afire” isn’t a genre movie, but its story carries its own kind of horror — two kinds, in fact: personal and collective. The first lies in the perpetual scowl of Leon (Thomas Schubert). While he’s theoretically taking time off to complete his second novel and stay in a cabin with friends, he exudes passive-aggressive rage. Constantly dressed in black, he observes life much more than he participates in it.

The second is the looming impact of climate change. A forest fire plays a large role in “Afire.” While such devastating events didn’t necessarily begin as the planet got hotter, it’s impossible to look at some of the imagery here — especially a scene where the four main characters gaze from a blue night into the orange glow of a distant fire — without thinking about this summer’s experiences in North America.

Leon and his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) drive to a cottage owned by Leon’s mother near the Baltic Sea, although their car battery gives out before they arrive. Felix is putting together an application for art school, while Leon struggles to finish his second novel before his publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) turns up to meet with him in person.

When they arrive, they discover the presence of Nadja (Paula Beer), a woman who has also booked the house. Felix greets the situation with a relaxed mind, and Nadja turns out to be quite pleasant (as well as attractive to the film’s men). Leon and Felix are forced to sleep in the same room. To make matters more uncomfortable for Leon, they can hear Nadja and local lifeguard Devid having noisy sex in the house. Once Felix starts spending time on the beach, he and Devid start sleeping with each other, alienating Leon to the point where he sleeps outside.

In “Afire,” nature is never inviting. Faced with the prospect of sharing a room in which he’ll have to overhear noisy sex, Leon decides to sleep on a hammock outside, amidst hungry mosquitos. The sun doesn’t shine very hard, the wind is always blowing, and the beach offers little pleasure for Leon. At its gloomiest, the film shows us a pig racing through the forest on fire and the twitching body of a dying, heavily burnt animal. Devid’s libido and openness to sleep with both men and women offer another possibility, but Leon is content to lie fully clothed on the dunes and read.

Critic Melissa Anderson has noted that “Felix, Nadja, and Devid comfortably reveal their trim physiques in various states of undress, while Leon is never not attired in somber-hued, flesh-covering garments; he wears black slacks and a jacket even while lying on the beach.” His fears about his own body remain subtext. Schubert’s performance is one of the finest in Petzold’s films, but it can only go so far in fleshing out a thinly written character. The actor lays out a character who prevents himself from living life to its full potential, glowering silently as his friends have fun around him. Leon seems to believe that he must remain self-absorbed to be a successful artist, but he constantly puts his foot in his mouth. At once, he thinks he’s a great novelist and suffers from paralyzing self-doubt. The film winds up in a place too dark to treat Leon as a comic figure.

The potential for comedy in “Afire” always seems just one step away. Petzold sees the gloom in this scenario as much as its humor. He pushes it towards cruelty rather than embracing a lighter tone. Yet this gravitas doesn’t prevent “Afire” from seeming far more one-note and less ambitious than Petzold’s recent films. It’s a much smaller-scale project, and knowing that it was shot in 2021 helps explain why so many scenes are set outdoors. However, the disasters it lays out don’t really feel connected. The references to climate change are slightly glib. From what we hear, his novel doesn’t seem worth the attention he devotes to it, yet the final scenes find redemption in his care for it. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young jerk, which can’t commit to its critique. Amidst the apocalyptic overtones of the creeping forest fire, “Afire” doesn’t make the life of the mind nearly as pressing as it once was.

“Afire” | Directed by Christian Petzold | Sideshow/Janus Films  | In German with English subtitles | Opens July 14th at IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center