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Wildfires are a global menace. Always threatened are U.S. states such as Oregon and California. Now, a new German-language film from celebrated writer-director Christian Petzold is based on a growing forest fire near the Baltic Sea. But this is not your typical disaster movie. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlinale, Afire is primarily a love story. It is so nice that it doesn’t fall into expected Hollywood norms/clichés of heroism, cheesy speeches and big-budget action sequences when there are flames to be engulfed by. This presents our take on a more realistic portrayal of how society responds.

However, with summer blockbuster season upon us in North America all these noisy bombastic films have descended — Mission: Impossible, Oppenheimer, Barbie etcetera. Nevertheless, warm weather also means time for relaxation so why not watch a quieter movie instead?

Ultimately however the more subdued approach of Afire reaches its zenith and our expectations get quickly subverted in few words thereafter, thus storytelling clichés around romance and happy endings? These ones Petzold throws away too. His new film begins with two guys driving to some vacation house in the middle of nowhere hoping to do some work.

Thomas Schubert plays Leon perfectly—like a narcissist—a successful writer who’s struggling through his next novel; it must really be hard for him at times! Felix (Langston Uibel) who is an excellent photographer will also be there for the summer holiday while staying at their family home. After some car trouble they finally arrive at the place where they meet Nadja (Paula Beer), who happens to be Felix’s family friend while gradually falling in love with Leon.. Felix would rather not sleep with girls though — Devid (Enno Trebs), a homosexual lifeguard employed at their nearby beach resort happens to be his taste, instead. Devid washes cars during the day and is also friends with Nadja – this is how the entire group gets to know each other at that getaway home perpetually threatened by forest fires we talked about before.

The presence of four single-and-ready-to-mingle buddies in the woods might lead one to assume some sort of lusty misbehavior occurs. Oh no. Instead, there are some thoughtful conversations taking place around the picnic table outside, overhead views of imminent fire danger looming, and an examination into Leon’s unfinished manuscript aptly called Club Sandwich for laughs.

Sometimes Afire slows down to a fault and may not work for everyone, but Schubert’s self-righteous writer will be loved worldwide. You don’t need to say anything when you’re acting, half of it has been said, and therefore whenever you see him in the film he has a priceless look on his face that adds a layer of comedy to this very serious and ultimately sad story. This face is relatable; there’s even a point where he tries checking himself into a hotel nearby so as not get distracted by new acquaintances; he was caught making fun of their manager behind her back though.

However, it mainly does this through action instead of dialogue— which is impressive enough on its own thank you very much. And above all else viewers will certainly identify with Leon’s continuing bad habit of simply discussing his need to write without actually doing any writing whatsoever.

How would you handle danger—probably become Tom Cruise or Will Smith in order to save the world? Not really. Another nice touch about Afire is that the main characters react more like real people when the bushfire begins moving closer to them at an alarming speed. And that old saying, “when it rains, it pours,” really comes to mind in this climactic third act.

Helmut (Matthias Brandt), Leon’s publisher, flies into town for a visit and they are going over Club Sandwich together when disaster strikes twice. Suddenly Helmut falls sick and he has to be rushed to hospital without fail. This situation of greater importance might have been exploited by a big budget Hollywood production with some dramatic accompanying music. Instead of relying on extra musical accompaniment, Petzold allows his imagery alone to tell us how serious the matter is. Good job, my friend!

Finally one of the couples dies as a result of wildfires. We do not want to disclose who but it is shocking and will make you cry when you find their burnt bodies holding each other tight. It is from that scene that we see at the start of First Cow (2019) by Kelly Reichardt where two human skeletons are found clasping hands.

Moreover, Afire showcases beautiful beach and wilderness imagery all along as well as conversational dialogue between four friends on life and related topics such as love relationships and jobs. Nadja played by Paula Beer is excellent; she had worked with Petzold before in Undine which was also award winning. What’s next for both these actors is eagerly awaited!

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