“Afire” is a summer movie. A bad vacation movie in the vein of Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” or Ingmar Bergman’s “Summer With Monika.” The rugged travails of the winter and the slurry of the spring have all melted away, and your dreams of therapeutic relaxation and easy sensuality got you through it. But small displeasures begin to bloom across the surface of your perfect idyll, like a rancid skin on fresh milk.
One of Petzold’s many clever twists on this familiar story is to send in his protagonist determined from the start to be miserable. Leon (Thomas Schubert) is a writer working on his second novel. His best friend Felix (Langston Uibel), a budding photographer, has a family house in the forest near Ahrenshoop, a grassy and serene vacationer’s hamlet along the Baltic coast in Northern Germany. “I need to work on my manuscript, and you need to work on your portfolio” is Leon’s constant refrain. The phrase that, like a charm, breaks any spell of fun or frivolity the other characters try and cast on Leon throughout the film. With his self-serious comportment and all-black wardrobe, Leon wants it to be clear that he means business, and only business.
The film opens with an ominous portent of things to come: Felix’s car breaks down on the way to the house, and they must walk the remaining 5+ miles to get there. Taking a page from the Grimm fairytales that dance around the German imagination, the men venture into the woods and immediately get lost. Leon hears a low-flying plane barrel overhead and unsettling animal cries in the distance. They eventually find the house, but they find it too late. An unshakeable feeling has entered the film, an uncanny sense that things aren’t what they seem now subtly pervades.