The (Ig)noble Sacrifice of the Author in Christian Petzold’s Afire
Literary history is littered with so-called troubled geniuses, authors whose work is revered in spite of, and often even due to, their infamous tempers and tempestuous personal lives. One needn’t go far to find eyebrow-raising stories about Ernest Hemingway and his penchant for intoxicated brawling and adulterous womanising, or the abusive behaviour of reclusive drugged-out “mad doctor” Hunter S. Thompson. Such myths of the brilliant but cantankerous writer, whose creative intellect is always qualified with a conjunction but never negated, cast an air of titillating mystique over their collected works.
But what about the thousands of aspiring authors who are merely moderately talented arseholes? With his latest film, Afire (2023), director Christian Petzold mounts a takedown of the sanctimonious schlub, examining a generation of young male writers who have taken the wrong lessons from the legacies of their problematic favourites.
Petzold is best known for playing fairytale-adjacent narrative conceits with a deadpan seriousness—a Holocaust survivor who courts her own husband after he fails to recognise her after she undergoes facial reconstruction surgery (Phoenix, 2014), or an otherwise stable historian who tells her beau that she will be forced to kill him if he leaves her (Undine, 2020)—but Afire sees him reversing his approach, tackling more grounded material with a light satirical touch. Set on the Baltic Sea coastline near Ahrenshoop, Germany, we’re introduced to ostensible bosom buddies, highly strung author Leon (Thomas Schubert) and laidback student Felix (Langston Uibel), as they travel to the latter’s holiday home, each with professed creative goals: Leon to complete the follow up to his debut novel and Felix to develop his photography portfolio. That their idyllic getaway is undercut by the unexpected presence of another house guest in Nadja (Paula Beer, on her third outing with Petzold) is the first of many perceived hindrances to Leon’s opus—to say nothing of the titular forest wildfires burning just out of frame.
Over the course of a few days we follow Leon as he struggles to polish his manuscript, the appropriately turgid sounding Club Sandwich. In keeping with his literary forebears, Leon’s behaviour is standoffish from the outset, whether he’s chastising Felix for letting Nadja take the bigger room or protesting Nadja’s late night rendezvous with her local lifeguard lover Devid (Enno Trebs) by sleeping outside, the model archetype of the haughty intellectual—tolerated but not liked. This is a man who can, with his face stuck between practised aloofness and squinting derision, proclaim, “I’m not a big ice cream fan,” and seem to really mean it. However, despite his readily apparent pride in the value of his own perspective, the great irony of Afire is Leon’s inability to perceive the impending threat posed by the fires all around them—spoken of in frantic terms by the locals, warned of over the radio, and even announced by roving klaxon-laden trucks—until it’s tragically too late.
If Leon sounds intolerable, that’s because he is—though Petzold makes it clear that this pompous persona is rooted in intellectual and romantic insecurities. Pining for Nadja from the moment he first sees her hanging laundry out of the window, his attitude is always worst in the presence of her athletic beau Devid, scowling, snapping, and bringing Devid’s intelligence and social standing into question, never missing an opportunity to assert his academic pedigree. Rather than relitigate the behaviour of canonised authors by modern standards, Petzold instead deconstructs Leon and his received perception of the sacrifice necessary for serious authorship, prodding at the ways in which his self-absorbed performance distances him from his peers and the world around him.
In the first half of the film, Petzold leaves Leon’s actual skill as a writer purposefully ambiguous, instead focusing on how his self-aggrandisement places a barrier between him and other people. The first of these interpersonal conflicts emerges after Nadja’s presence forces Leon and Felix to share a room, a logical compromise that Leon sees as an affront to his Important Work, explaining, “I need peace and quiet, somewhere to work alone.” If Leon has a mantra, it’s some version of this phrase, forever rejecting offers to join Felix for a swim or Nadja to bask in the sun because of his great undertaking, always “has” to work, never “wants” to work. In one such instance, Felix, lithe and sexy in his beachwear, a towel slung over his shoulder, interrupts Leon, sun-shy and permanently in long sleeves, as he works on the pergola, tossing a tennis ball his way in a small attempt to broach the barrier formed by his carefully positioned laptop. But despite Leon’s sour indifference at the prospect of play, he isn’t actually working at all. It’s only when Felix walks away that Leon breaks the facade and procrastinates more openly—a hard cut to a wide shot reveals Leon away from his writer’s den, bouncing that same ball aimlessly against the wall in the manner of a lost child.
With this image in mind, we begin to see how Leon’s deference to his work is born of how he wants to be perceived rather than any authentic dedication to his craft. Each dismissive reply and steely stare reveals an underlying need to be deferred to as the smartest person in the room, or at least recognised as the most intellectually engaged. This is the domain of the serious male author. By contrast, Felix is happy to potter around and “settle in”, as he puts it, finding inspiration in his empirical experiences; swimming, cooking, fixing the leaky roof—all tasks that are seemingly below Leon. It’s no surprise then that when Felix explains to Leon that the subject of his photography project is “water”, Leon scoffs, explaining condescendingly that water is an element, not a subject. If Leon doesn’t look down his nose at his peers, then how can he be sure he has the intellectual high ground?
What becomes clear during this exchange is Leon’s lack of connection to the material world. To him, water is only an element, just as the genial warmth of his companions is only an irritation. Through the use of point-of-view shots, Petzold emphasises how sterile life is to Leon, always at a distance, always framed in the fashion of the voyeur in cold medium-wides. When Felix explains the specific focus of his photography—a series of portraits of people looking out at the ocean, one shot taken from behind each person, then another from the perspective of the sea looking back at them—Leon’s response pushes past mere dismission into active vitriol, rejecting the premise on the basis that the people would be looking at Felix rather than the waters. That Leon can only see the camera reflected in each subject’s eyes, not the sea, reveals the limits of his perspective.
Such a startling lack of imagination is surely poison for good writing, and what little we hear of Leon’s gestating second book affirms as much. He has calls with an unseen publisher about choosing a title, he perpetually carries around a backpack of writing materials, and he smokes a lot of hand-rolled cigarettes, but he never seems to actually write. When Nadja, whose acumen is presumed lowly on the basis of her being an attendant at the local ice cream stand (though, unbeknownst to Leon, she is actually a PhD literature candidate), asks to read the draft, he’s immediately defensive. Explaining his sensitivity on the basis of his publisher’s loaded feedback—comments like “exciting”, “promising”, and “has potential”—Leon rants how one misplaced remark could derail his entire creative process… before acquiescing and letting her read it. In a nice visual motif, as he waits for Nadja’s judgement outside he bounces his little ball against the wall once more, rendered infantile at the possibility of being seen for the first time. Her verdict, when it lands, is predictably curt: “You know it’s crap.” And so the entire house of cards comes tumbling down—a dick with a bad book is just a dick, after all.
While Petzold is clearly willing to turn Leon into a comedic punchbag—a later visit from the aforementioned publisher consists solely of him reading Leon his manuscript back to him, no comments necessary, all barbs implied—he grounds Leon’s flippant rudeness in his inability to reconcile his low sense of self worth with his perceptions of how a great author should behave. The biggest punchline of all might be the subject of his manuscript —a romance he has self-evidently never lived through. And yet despite his lack of romantic perspective, it becomes apparent that Leon is hopelessly besotted with Nadja, the “bloody ice cream seller”, forever the subject of his lengthy stares from the pergola or behind half-shut venetian blinds, held back from confessing his romantic interest by his own smug piousness. It’s only when those long burning wildfires finally enter the frame and tragedy strikes first-hand that he’s forced to face up to any of these realities, be they his pinings for intimacy or his literary shortcomings. Perhaps it’s finally time to grow up.
A quote from one of Hemingway’s many manuscripts reads, “I have always had the illusion it was more important, or as important, to be a good man as to be a great writer. May turn out to be neither. But would like to be both.” In a montage during the closing scenes of Afire, Petzold incorporates the first use of voiceover in the film, a narration that gradually reveals itself to be Leon’s new book based on the lives lost in the wildfires. Writing, seemingly for the first time, from his own lived-in experiences, the prose is imminent and impactful in a way that the since abandoned Club Sandwich never could have been. And though the prospect of an overnight change in Leon’s demeanour seems unlikely, the film’s final shot—Leon smiling with a genuine affection at Nadja after a chance reunion—indicates that he’s ready to stop playing at being a great writer and start trying to be a good man. Regardless of whether there’s any real hope for a love affair between the pair, by closing on a moment of sincere emotion from Leon, Petzold suggests Leon might have the capacity to focus on being a brilliant author rather than a troubled one—and maybe, just maybe, stop being such an arsehole.
Blaise Radley is a freelance film critic based in Brixton. His writing has appeared in Little White Lies, The Quietus, and Cinema Year Zero, where he is a member of the editorial team, but you can find his thoughts most frequently (and least legibly) on Letterboxd.
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