“These artists, these idiots, have to live on”: "Afire" by Christian Petzold

English Daily #2
Compared to earlier gems like Transit (2018) and Undine (2020), German arthouse maverick Christian Petzold goes for a seemingly lighter tone with his latest Berlinale competition entry Afire. It shows two close friends retreating to a holiday house for a healthy combination of rest and work, unexpectedly finding an extra guest in their summer retreat. The breezy, yet layered dynamics between this triangle of characters is reminiscent of the French summer films by Éric Rohmer and Shakespeare’s delightful comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. It’s all about these farcical holiday discomforts that come with having a lack of privacy and being out of sync with the other people that share a space with you, resulting in delightfully funny moments. However, as to be expected of Petzold as an auteur of sophisticated melodrama, the comedic elements of Afire mostly function as a Trojan horse for the heart-wrenching tragedy that actually lies at the heart of this story.

It’s mostly the story of Leon, a struggling author with a massive case of writers’ block. He keeps complaining that his work “doesn’t allow him” to join in on the holiday fun happening all around them. And when he finally reaches a point where he can put his anxieties aside, it’s seemingly too late. A raging wildfire creeps into the story, turning the film into an ashen mediation on destruction, love and loss. “It’s tragic,” says Petzold during Berlinale about the doomed fate of Leon. “His work is to observe people and to make stories about them, and he’s actually ashamed of that. He’s frustrated as a human being and an artist, he’s stuck in his own limbo.”

Leon’s narcissism as a writer is partially a self-effacing mirror image of Petzold himself. “I recognize myself in this character. This idiot who wants to create, who doesn’t live life because he’s too succumbed by the work he has given himself.” This is where the real tragedy comes in, because it’s only through loss that Leon finds a way to write meaningfully again, meaning that life has to be lived to the fullest before one can actually create. “The people that live openly have to die,” says Petzold about the rather somber undertones in this scorching drama. “And these artists, these idiots, they have to live on. That is their fate: to live on and to write. To not show love and not to receive it, because he’s an idiot. And therefore, because he’s an idiot, he can write.”

Hugo Emmerzael