‘Cinema,’ Christian Petzold once said in an interview, ‘always tells the stories of people who do not belong anymore but who want to belong once again.’ ‘Always’ seems a bit of a stretch, but the idea is interesting. Petzold thinks of John Wayne in The Searchers – ‘also a ghost’, he says – and we could add James Stewart in Vertigo struggling to bring back to life a woman who isn’t dead. And closer to home, or to Germany, we could think of Petzold’s film Phoenix (2014), where a woman whose face has been brutally broken in a concentration camp wants a plastic surgeon to recreate her features just as they were. The surgeon says he can’t do that, and it might be a mistake anyway. The woman insists. Survival for her, if it is to mean anything, has to find a ‘now’ that is a perfect replica of ‘then’.
This territory – where cinema both illustrates and denies the notion of the impossible – is neatly evoked in a line spoken by a character in Phoenix: ‘I don’t have to close my eyes to see you.’ This could mean many things, but I’m taking it as an account of one of film’s favourite practices: showing us what we can only see as a dream. The dream, needless to say, might be fantastic, and we have closed our eyes tight. But it could also be unbearably real – there are plenty of reasons for closed eyes. Petzold’s recurring word for what he wants to create for the viewer is Schwebezustand, a condition of ‘abeyance’, ‘hovering’, ‘limbo’, the trajectory of a plane that won’t land, let’s say.
There are drawbacks to such a view. There are moments when we can’t take any more hovering, and Petzold’s timing and tone can be awkward. But he is faithful to his scheme, and his new film, Afire (an imaginative translation of what more literally is ‘Red Sky’), has a much lighter touch than any of his previous works. No, let me rephrase that. Petzold shows us that some lumbering movements can be understood only if we take them lightly.
The chief lumberer throughout the movie is Leon (Thomas Schubert), a man whose self-absorption seems like a parody of itself. Everything the film has him do ought in theory to make him unpleasant and unwatchable, but he just comes across as grumpy and helpless. He and his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) are on a working holiday by the Baltic Sea – Felix’s mother has a house she is lending them. The two men – are they a couple? – have very different ideas about their projects. Leon is supposed to be revising a draft of a novel he will later fail to discuss with his editor; Felix needs to construct a portfolio of photographs for an art school application. Leon’s idea of a holiday is to pretend to be too busy to enjoy it; Felix’s idea is that fun comes first, and the work later, if at all. The irony, of course, is that Felix’s portfolio turns out well and Leon’s novel is a disaster. He knows this but it takes him a whole movie to recognise it.
The style of the story becomes clear in an episode that happens even before Leon and Felix get to the holiday house. Their car breaks down. They decide to walk the rest of the way, or rather Felix takes off to see if he remembers the route through the woods. Leon is alone among the trees, looking distinctly worried, and we think we have seen this film before. This is where horrors, natural or supernatural, descend on him. We are wrong, though. Felix returns and says the walk is even shorter than he thought it was. Panic cancelled.
There is another, less gothic, problem. Felix’s mother already has a tenant in the house, and the men are to share it with her. She is Nadja, played by Paula Beer, who also appears in another Petzold movie, Undine (2020), where she more than lives up to her aquatic name. The men don’t see her at first, because she works during the day at an ice cream stand on the beach, but they do hear her having sex in the next room. For Leon this is the perfect form of nuisance. Just his luck, as he would say. But of course, there is no luck in a plotline. This one has a fine development when Leon has to listen to someone else’s sex life behind the wall. It can’t be Nadja’s because she is in the room with him. But it can be, and is, that of Felix, who has taken a fancy to Nadja’s boyfriend, Devid (Enno Trebs). To Leon the world looks pretty gothic after all. It is a place where everyone, with one exception, knows how to have a good time.
With this mood in place, the film settles into its long, bumpy climax, focused on the visit of Leon’s editor, Helmut (Matthias Brandt). A lot happens here and on a rising scale of damage, but it is all subject to a single comic rule: it has to get in the way of Leon’s conversation with his editor. They sit down to talk, Helmut for some reason just reads the text without comment, and they are interrupted by a call to dinner. After dinner, Helmut and Nadja chat, and he learns that she not only runs the ice cream stand but is also a graduate student at the University of Marburg. She and Helmut have a long conversation about Kleist and Heine, and she quotes a famous poem by the latter, in which a sultan’s daughter asks a slave about his homeland and descent. He says he belongs to a race ‘which dies when it loves’. This certainly changes everyone’s view of Nadja, since they thought her constant good humour was probably down to her simple, uneducated life, and it’s worse for Leon – a sort of horror – since Nadja has read his manuscript and told him it doesn’t work.
But the pre-Wagnerian link between love and death – also the topic of Petzold’s Undine – shifts the ground too, and the events of the plot now have a different weight. Helmut has what looks like a heart attack but turns out to be connected to his cancer. He is rushed to hospital. The red sky of the title appears, and the approaching forest fires take away two of our characters. We even get to see Leon back in the forest, in the movie we thought we recognised. A pack of wild boars rushes past him, and then one of them lies dead. Leon is mesmerised and seems to be looking at a portrait of something.
Times passes. Helmut is back in the hospital, perhaps near his death. At an earlier moment he did manage to tell Leon he should scrap his novel and write another. Leon does this, and on the soundtrack, we hear Helmut reading from the new work. It sounds a lot better than the previous one, but it also seems heavily dependent on the events of the movie we are watching.
There is a moral here, if we like this sort of thing, and Petzold would no doubt say we are entitled to our liking. That’s what abeyance is about. Self-absorbed people like Leon have to learn about the lives of others, about pain and difference and surprise. The self is not a world. If we don’t like this moral, or don’t believe in it, then we may want to reflect on the gap between the personal stories at the seaside and the impersonal disaster of the climate – which here plays the role of catastrophic history in other Petzold movies. The gap makes all serious connection implausible, but how can we not try to find a relation between the stories? It may help to listen again to Petzold himself: ‘I will never make a film that tries to lead to some conclusion.’ This doesn’t mean we can’t reach conclusions, just that we’re the ones doing the reaching.
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