Interview: Christian Petzold on Afire
This article appeared in the March 16, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Afire (Christian Petzold, 2023)
Like many of Christian Petzold’s films, Afire features a beautiful woman and a desirous man caught up in the flurries of fate. But where works like Transit (2018) and Undine (2020) call upon history to ensnare their lovers, Afire plants itself firmly in a burning present. The second in a planned trilogy of features about the elements (Undine was the first, with its ravishing tale of a water nymph and an industrial diver), the film places its young protagonists—two artists and two service workers—on the very brink of climate collapse, in a forest wrecked by wildfires.
In the thick of summer, novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert) and photographer Felix (Langston Uibel) arrive at a house in the woods to work on their projects, only to find it already occupied by a mysterious young woman, Nadja (Paula Beer). Leon, as self-important as writers come, is trying to finish his second novel, and is irked by Felix’s proclivity for leisure and Nadja’s sunny disposition toward her job as an ice-cream seller. The fullness of her life—her cheery bicycle rides to work, her notebooks scribbled with philosophical musings, her loud sex with a lifeguard, David (Enno Trebs)—seems to befuddle Leon. Schubert and Petzold delight in making the character a pathetic (and for writers, perhaps too-recognizable) fool, drawing out his insecurities through charged glances, glares, and passive-aggressive quips.
Afire is a modernist melodrama in classic Petzold style—swooning romance and crushing disaster are pared down to the sleek, spare gestures of an unfeeling capitalist world—but it’s also the filmmaker’s funniest and strangest film yet, one that swaps the mysteries of fate for something closer to postmodern farce. Love and death loom, with pointed incongruity, over a wry situational comedy about the banalities of work—about artistic production, the sensuality of labor, and the futility of industry in the face of all-consuming catastrophe.
At this year’s Berlinale, a few days before Afire won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize, I met up with Petzold for a conversation about the film.
I’m curious about the English title, Afire, because the German title, Roter himmel, is different—it translates to “The Red Sky.”
I never heard this word, “afire,” before, but I like the sound. It means, I would say, “enflamed”—it’s an action, not a Technicolor picture. The original title was The Happy Ones, but there was a director who already had the rights, so I had to change it… My answers could be very long, it’s no problem for you?
It’s no problem.
I was very lonely today, so it’s great to talk.
Three years ago, soon after the Berlinale, Paula Beer and I had to go to Paris to do press for Undine. It was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we were in a restaurant. Like in wartime, the music was switched off and people were staring at the TV in the corner, and President Macron announced, “Tomorrow, lockdown, totally.” So Paula and I had to go back to Germany immediately, and we talked about our escape from Paris like two people in a movie. “We will rent a car… we will cross the green border…”
Our distributor in Paris was Margaret Menegoz from Les Films du Losange. She’s the producer of many of Éric Rohmer’s movies, many of Jacques Rivette’s movies, and she gave Paula and me the complete films of Rohmer—25 DVDs—as a gift. When we came back to Berlin, Paula and I were both infected by corona.
This is when you had fever dreams?
Really good fever dreams.
I remember you saying that when we spoke in 2020.
At that time, I had bought the rights to a book by Georges Simenon, a dystopian story about a culture which is oppressed by fascists and in which young people have lost their morality. But I didn’t want to make a dystopian movie anymore. I’d been watching the Rohmer movies, and something happened in my brain. In the U.S.A. and France, there is this genre of the “summer movie,” like The Myth of the American Sleepover. You have two months in the summer when the parents don’t exist, and young people are looking for an identity. In France, they call it education sentimentale. This is something that when you become an adult, you remember as a scar, as something that hurt you, or showed you something of the world.
Is this something you’ve experienced or only seen in the movies?
No, I’ve only seen this in movies. In Germany, we don’t have this genre. In Germany, the parents are always waiting. We have a regression in the summer, while in France and the U.S., they have a progression. So these were my thoughts and part of my fever dreams… I had so many erotic fever dreams, too, but I can’t remember them! But there was a desire for summer and for the outside, for touching. There was a discourse in Germany at the time that it was good for young people to have this pandemic oppression, because they have a hedonistic lifestyle: they only think about smoking marijuana, going to the clubs, they don’t want to work… I hated this discourse. I have two children, who are now adults, and they were really depressed at the time. They hated it, too. Then I read a short novel by Chekhov.
The title is [“The House with the Mezzanine”, sometimes also titled “An Artist’s Story”]. It’s about two artists—one is a writer and one is a painter—and they are total losers, but one of them is rich and has a big house, and they spend their holidays in this house. They’re just sitting there: nobody’s painting, nobody’s writing, they’re thinking about life. And nearby, there’s another house where two sisters live with their mother, and one of the sisters is a communist and wants to change society. And both the men, the losers, miss the chance of love in this novel. This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my life.
I started writing with all these impressions: Rohmer, Chekhov, the pandemic. About all the adults who say, “No, your holidays are over now, you have to work,” while, on the other hand, they destroy the planet. I wrote down this story in three or four days and called it The Happy Ones. Because everybody’s telling them, “You are the happy generation! You have everything!” Then I had to change it, and I remembered one of my favorite German movies from the New German Cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, Red Sun by Rudolf Thome. The ending is a little like in Duel in the Sun: by a small lake near Munich, [the characters] shoot at each other because they love each other. So I came to The Red Sky. But the American title is much better, Afire! There’s more action.
Did you choose the American title?
No, but they asked me, and one of my favorite movies is The Big Sky by Howard Hawks. It also has a scene like Duel in the Sun… They’re punching each other and a friendship starts, through male violence. I like this scene very much. But I thought The Red Sky would sound too much like a western, so I agreed with Afire.
Were you also thinking of horror movies while making the film? There are elements of ’80s horror in it—it starts with two characters driving into the forest, and then their car breaks down. They are always looking at the sky for some kind of unseen monster, which of course is the forest fire.
I love this kind of movie so much, like The Hills Have Eyes… I have hundreds of them. And American movies about young people in the summer are very often horror movies. Like Friday the 13th. It’s like that education sentimentale: young people in a car that they don’t own; some of them are working class, some of them have rich parents, and they have to learn something together. In American horror movies, because they don’t have much money, they learn through violence.
And in France, they learn with love.
Love and violence… it’s summertime! The other thing is that there’s this house in the forest, and when they reach it… I said to the DP, Hans Fromm: we have to do one little movement of the camera. It must look like the German fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel. And then the next position of the camera must be inside the house. When you show a house in a movie, you can do [one of] two things. You can put your camera outside, and the characters arrive, take the keys out, and open the door, and you see them vanishing into the house. Or you can wait for them inside the house. There is a big difference: the first one says, “This is the summer, this is the first day,” while the second one says, “Something is not in order.”
I learned this in the ’90s, when I stayed in Berkeley for two months with my friend Harun Farocki. There was a graphic novel shop in San Francisco, and there was a young graphic novelist, David Lapham, who wrote a series called Stray Bullets. I was very impressed by it. The first picture in Lapham’s graphic novels is always a house from the inside. Everything is in harmony, and then there is one sound, clack! Someone opens the door with a key, and the controlled, harmonic atmosphere is disturbed. Here, people are bad, and the houses are good. When the people are outside, everything is okay, but when they come in, they bring their problems and love affairs.
You always pay a lot of attention to work, particularly the nature of modern work, in your films. In Afire, there are many conversations about what constitutes work. Is cooking work? Is swimming work? Is writing work? You also satirize the overvaluation of intellectual work through the character of Leon. Why was this theme so important to you? It seems connected to your idea of summer as a time of leisure.
I have to go back in film history for this answer. The first movie ever made was with workers leaving the [Lumière] factory. But you don’t see the work, you only see them leaving the factory. So cinema has nothing to do with work. I saw Blue Collar by Paul Schrader again last week. It has people who are really working—you don’t see that often in movies. And because we don’t have pictures of work, we don’t have a sense of the sexuality, the eroticism, the lifestyle of workers. In the ’50s and ’60s, when teachers asked teenagers what they wanted to be when they grew up, they would say, “I want to be a nurse,” or “I want to be a hairdresser.” Today, everybody wants to be a writer, an actor, do a start-up. Everything that is production and involves working with your hands is out. But then, when they are 30 or 40, they want to work again—but work as leisure. They work in their own garden, they make their own organic food.
Yes, exactly. In Afire, Leon is playing the role of a writer—he is smoking like a writer, he is sitting in his working space like on a stage—but nothing is real! And Felix doesn’t want to work as a photographer; he wants to rebuild the house, he wants to repair the roof. And then there is a girl, Nadja. She is beautiful, but she is also working. She always says, “I need to go to work, sorry.” She has to earn money. In older movies, the girl is in the swimming pool half-naked, the object of male subjectivity. I wanted to change that. This girl is the only one who is always on her bicycle—she buys food, she prepares meals… and she has sex at night. She has everything; she is the subject, not the object. So the guys are disturbed. They’re looking through windows at her, and they hear her orgasm. In older movies, they might say, “I want her, I want her now.” Here, they are impressed, but they also have fear.
You described Leon as “playing at” being a writer. Were you thinking of your own role as a filmmaker when writing that character, or your own feelings about artistic work and how it compares to manual or professional labor?
There’s one movie of mine I always feel ashamed of. I never want to do a master class with this movie. It’s my second feature, Cuba libre. It’s not so bad, but the time when I made it was the worst in my life. Because I had made a movie, Pilots, that was successful, and I got a lot of money very fast for a second movie, just eight months later. I was impressed by what critics said, I had new friends, I could sit in hotels like this and talk, and I lost control. I wrote the script very fast, in two or three months, and it’s a script by a charlatan—a charlatan who doesn’t know he’s a charlatan. It has so many quotations from all my favorite movies; for example, I took the plot from Detour. I wanted to show the world that I am a cineastic, intellectual young man.
During the shooting of Afire, when we rehearsed the scene where Nadja and Leon are talking about the title of Leon’s second book, Club Sandwich, I realized what had happened. Cuba libre and Club Sandwich have something to do with each other. You don’t need a psychoanalytic session for that. It’s like a menu: “one Cuba libre and one club sandwich, please!” It’s Leon’s second book, and that was my second movie. And it’s the movie I made during a summer in which I learned something about myself, about narcissistic structures, and about the value of collective work. The author in Afire has to learn, like me. So yes, there are biographical tendencies, but I didn’t want this. It was during the rehearsals that I said, “Oh my god, this is about me.” The next movie is about a woman. Not about me!
My favorite scene in the movie is the dinner during which we learn that Nadja is a literary scholar. She references Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, The Earthquake in Chile, and then recites “The Asra,” the poem by Heinrich Heine. It reminded me of Paula’s lecture in Undine, which she gives twice—and here she recites the poem twice, too, with a beautiful voice.
I studied literature, and I read this essay which is mentioned in the film, by Werner Hamacher. The content of the essay is that an earthquake that happened in Lisbon in the 1700s was a breaking point in our history, because God left us then. If God made earthquakes like that, it didn’t make any sense to believe in him. Kant, Hegel, they all talk about this earthquake.
Von Kleist’s novella is trembling in its structure, in its rhythm. It’s like an earthquake not only in the content, but also in form. When you are at a festival like the Berlinale, you are always talking about the content of movies: it’s a movie about Ukraine, about the earthquake in Turkey, about Iran… always movies “about.” What you can learn from Kleist’s novel and Hamacher’s essay is that it is important not only to do things about; the author himself must also be infected by the thing he or she is talking about.
When Nadja is reciting “The Asra,” she’s not just talking about people who have to die when they love—she’s also talking about rhythm, and about Germany, in a way. In Germany, we have no music. When you see a movie like Heaven’s Gate, you can see that all the Europeans are bringing their music to the U.S.A.: the Romani, the Polish people, the Germans; there’s also the blues that the Africans bring. The Nazis destroyed the music of the people. We also lost our lyrics. I read an interview with Hannah Arendt. She had lived in New York for 30 years, and they asked her in which language she dreams, and she said: in German, because of all the poems she had read when she was a child.
I am interested in your use of these two texts—“The Asra” and The Earthquake in Chile—because they’re both examples of an ironic or disillusioned romanticism. In your other films, love is usually a radical force: it re-enchants a capitalist world that is too rational, too modern. Afire feels different, more cynical. Here, love is helpless in the face of disaster and death.
The power of love, the romantic, the black night of love—in this movie, I was not interested in all these structures. I was interested more in the collective, in the group, which has to learn something. Love doesn’t already exist. They have to work for it. There is love in the poem, there is love in the views; there is also physical love in the night, and between the two guys when they kiss. You can see the love growing. It’s an agriculture of love. It’s not love in a romantic way.
In most catastrophe movies, the characters need a state of exception, like the breaking of the skyscrapers, to find themselves. In those moments of emergency, you can see who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. But in this movie, the characters are totally innocent, like today’s young generation. They have done nothing. The parents, the grandparents, and the capitalistic world have destroyed everything for them. So when catastrophe happens, they don’t learn anything from it. They don’t have time to love; they don’t have time to create something out of it.
In the film, Felix has an idea for his photography portfolio, to shoot portraits of folks looking at the sea from behind and then from the front. Was that inspired by Sophie Calle’s project, Voir la mer? I read an interview with her in The Guardian where she said precisely what Leon says in the film, that she didn’t want to film people’s portraits from the front because then they would be looking at the camera instead of the sea.
Yes, that’s right. I think we read the same interview. Ten years ago, when we were making Barbara, I remember that Nina Hoss had this picture by Gerhard Richter of his daughter, in which you see her from the back. When you see someone’s portrait from the back, you start to imagine what they are thinking about. You start to read the image.
You’ve said you’re now making an “elements” trilogy. Undine was your water movie, and this is technically your fire movie, but you always return to the sea! Why is the sea so important to you?
Three or four weeks before Agnès Varda died, she did these master classes. She said, “The beach is the main position for making movies because you have the water, you have earth, you have the wind, and you have loneliness, which you need for cinema.” Cinema is against loneliness, but you have to know what loneliness is to make movies. I think it’s something like that for me. But the next movie… yeah, it is something to do…
…with the ocean?
Yes, with the ocean! [Laughs]
Thank you to Giovanni Marchini Camia for assistance with German-English interpretation.