Like its lead character, novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert), writer/director Christian Petzold’s “Afire” (Sideshow/Janus Films) is a lot to handle. Thoroughly unlikeable and completely self-absorbed, Leon is the kind of character that might make some viewers give up on him less than halfway through the movie. But, don’t do that. Even though he doesn’t necessarily become easier to take, there is something of a payoff if you stick with him.
After experiencing car trouble, Leon and Felix (Langston Uibel) trek eight miles through the woods with their luggage, arriving at Felix’s mother’s country home. Leon is intent on finishing his manuscript while there, and Felix is trying to come up with his portfolio to complete his art school application. But their plans are disrupted when they discover that Felix’s flaky mother has already rented the house to Nadja (Paula Beer), a seasonal worker who scoops ice cream at the beach.
Forced to share the small bedroom, Felix tries to make the best of the situation while the moody Leon chooses to sulk. Making matters worse, they can hear Nadja having sex through the house’s thin walls. While attempting to sleep outside where it’s quieter, although swarming with gnats, Leon sees one of Nadja’s dates leave the house naked.
The next day, at the seaside, Felix meets Devid (Enno Trebs), who prefers being called a “rescue swimmer” to lifeguard. It turns out he was the same man Leon saw leaving the house the night before. Felix and Devid hit it off, and Felix invites him to dinner at the house with Nadja and Leon that evening. Leon is unnecessarily cruel to Devid, dampening the mood.
Almost a character itself, the wildfires burning in the distance play a significant role in the movie. There is the constant sound of aircraft flying overhead. The fires can be seen from the roof of the house. At one point, ash floats in the air like snowflakes. The wildlife in the woods moves closer to the house, and a herd of wild boars is severely affected (consider this a trigger warning).
The main thing to know about “Afire” is that no one is as they appear, beginning with Felix and Devid who begin a sweet and affectionate sexual relationship.
There’s also more to Nadja than meets the eye as Leon discovers. The same is true of Helmut (Matthieu Brandt), Leon’s publisher/editor, who comes to the house to meet with Leon about his new manuscript, only to have a serious and revelatory health crisis.
“Afire” takes a long time to ignite, but once it does, brace yourself. The film’s finale, which features a devastating tragedy, is nothing short of heartbreaking. And yet, a strange kind of resolution occurs, that feels both literary and slightly forced. In German with subtitles.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of nine books including Refrain in Light (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2023). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in South Florida with his husband Rick, and their dog Coco.