Berlin Film Festival 2023 – A master of the minimalist Berlin school, Christian Petzold, returns with Roter Himmel (Afire), a spiritual follow-up to his 2020 film Undine, in the second installment of his loose series of films about art and love based on the classical elements. In Roter Himmel, the focus is on fire, both in a physical and psychological sense, exploring the anxiety of existence and the pulsation of anger, fear and jealousy.
The film’s primary achievement is its impeccable casting, led by an enigmatic and seductively captivating performance from Paula Beer…
Here, the setting is transported from bustling Berlin to a sleepy seaside town on the German Baltic coast. Leon, played by petulant Thomas Schubert, is a writer suffering from a creative drought as he rushes to finish his next book, Club Sandwich. He is unsatisfied with his writing but is unwilling to admit it. Mired in frustration, insecurity and anxiety, he follows his friend Felix to his family’s home in the countryside for some peace and quiet, but is surprised to find another resident, Paula, played by Petzold’s latest muse Paula Beer, inhabiting the rustic compound. At the same time, reports of a wildfire begin to seep into their world of blissful retreat, as the conflagration gradually engulfs their forested surroundings. As our protagonists look up to a sky washed in a hue of blazing red, waiting for the arrival of impending flame and destruction, they are trapped in desolation and a web of overwhelming, feral sexual tension and professional frustration.
The film’s primary achievement is its impeccable casting, led by an enigmatic and seductively captivating performance from Beer, who had won the Silver Bear for her work in Undine. She brings a radiating air of carefreeness that is also a well-worn façade of deeper perturbation. Nadja’s initial playfulness and eccentricity, accentuated by her quirky remarks is brilliantly balanced with her later rumination on the fragility and impermanence of life’s joy and wonders. Schubert also convincingly portrays the self-absorption and the misery of his character, albeit occasionally edging towards the unlikeable. His envy and annoyance, first towards Nadja and her hunky lifeguard boyfriend Devid (Enno Trebs), then towards his publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt)’s views of Nadja, all developed in a way to hide his own attraction to and desire for Nadja, form the central narrative of this film. The film comes to life when they share the main stage, including one dinner sequence where the secrets of Nadja, and of the film, are revealed.
The end product is a mesmerizing piece of work that is very good at capturing a feeling in a particular place at a particular time, but lingers with a sense of parochiality that leaves audiences wanting.
The film is reminiscent of Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, another film focusing on the evolution and breakdown of relationships and intimacy in a barren, seaside setting. Both films echo Bergman’s films about the perennial struggle of artists paired with an underlying current of existential threat. The woods, the echoes, the deep, fickle waves of the Baltic sea are all very evocative, and brings to mind Bergman’s Fårö island. However, unlike Bergman’s work, Petzold’s free flowing style lacks a particular thematic focus. The plot shifts from a quiet exploration about a writer’s isolated anxieties, to a dreamy portrayal of uncontrolled lust and romance, to a tragicomedy about loss and rehabilitation, but not always with great tonal consistency. The end product is a mesmerizing piece of work that is very good at capturing a feeling in a particular place at a particular time, but lingers with a sense of parochiality that leaves audiences wanting. There is humour, there is heartbreak, there are questions about existential crises, but one would only wish if they can all come together in a story that is as cohesive and as profound as its characters.