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Review: Afire

As fires rage across this beautiful state of Arizona, fire is also all over the big screen. However, the flames in German filmmaker Christian Petzold's Afire aren't coming from the New Mexico desert, they are inside of a few young adults. Situated at a vacation house near the Baltic Sea, Petzold's new film is the portrait of someone whose aflame within, consuming him rather than fueling his creativity.

Leon (Thomas Schubert) is as arrogant of a main character as you are likely to see this year. He is annoyed by the film's first frame when his friend Felix's (Langston Uibel) car breaks down on the way. When they arrive after a trek through the woods, they discover someone else is occupying the home. Felix's mom forgot to mention that she'd let the niece of a coworker stay there. Now Leon is going to have to share a room with Felix, ruining his expected plan of privacy.

Leon has his publisher coming in a few days and needs to work on his manuscript. All he wants to do is work. Felix is also working on his portfolio for art school. However, the two men couldn't be more different. While Felix is able to enjoy the situation and embrace mystery guest Nadja (Paula Beer), Leon can't enjoy anything in the world. He refuses to swim, gets upset that Felix lets him sleep and the beach, and intellectually attacks anyone he sees as unserious. Felix finds inspiration for his art, Leon can barely commit a word to a page.

Surrounding the vacation home are forest fires, threatening the small town nearby. While the metaphor isn't exactly subtle, it is powerful and effective. Particularly because of Shubert's magnificent performance that never asks you to sympathize with Leon. Beer is also a huge standout as the disruptive but luminous Nadja. It is clear from early on that Leon crushes on her but she is a deeply drawn character that even Leon writes off. He wants to peg her as one thing and yet she keeps revealing new layers, much to his frustration.

Afire can play like a portrait of an incel on fire at times. Petzold has said that the film was his attempt at a German summer genre film, citing how the French and Americans have summer movies and German cinema does not. The honest nature of Petzold's filmmaking then can't help but have anger and sadness creep into even the most idyllic of settings. What he has created is a fascinating film about the nature of art and artist and of jealousy and entitlement. The flames may only be seen briefly in Afire, but the smoke is everywhere.



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