Roter Himmel (Afire)
Arguably the best of the five German entries up for this year’s Golden Bear is Christian Petzold’s Roter Himmel. After his previous Competition entries, Transit and Undine (for which Paula Beer won the festival’s Best Actress award in 2020), he teamed up with his leading lady for a third time, in hopes of snatching the top prize this time around.
Leon is a writer, Felix is working on his portfolio for art school. The two Berlin buddies drive up to Germany’s Baltic Coast In order to pursue creative inspiration at a faraway holiday lodge near the sea. From the moment their car breaks down on the way there, Leon is extremely irritable. He is especially annoyed at having to haul their luggage to the house on foot, only to find out upon arrival that they have to share the house with another tenant. While Felix takes photos and befriends the locals, Leon withdraws into himself but still doesn’t make the desired headway with his book. At night, the motley crew stare at the forest fires blazing in the distance.
In a similar vein to Undine, Petzold primarily tells a story about wanting to love, but being unable to do so – in this particular case portraying a self-sabotaging author, who is too concerned with navel-gazing and self-aggrandising to pick up on anything that is happening around him. When Leon speaks of love, his desire revolves around being loved and, as long as he fails to see the distinction, his writing is “bullshit” (as Nadja curtly refers to it).
Shadowing the main plot, there is another link to contemporary history, how it affects day-to-day action, but it is more subtle than in Petzold’s previous work. On several occasions, the protagonists encounter warnings about the dry season and wildfires but they barely pay attention. Leon keeps smoking his cigarettes to complete the image of the tortured artist, and even though there is no outright indication an improper disposal of his is to blame, complicity through negligence also cannot be ruled out – just like the grander scheme of collective behaviour affecting our environment.
The camerawork observantly catches the ambience of stagnant summer days and nights, but the repetitive use of the same song throughout the 103 minutes undermines its atmospheric impact.
While the film works as an entertaining narrative, the unsympathetic lead (played by Austrian Thomas Schubert) somewhat hinders any emotional engagement. Overall, the viewer remains a passive bystander, watching events unfold, rather than relating to any of the characters and learning from their mistakes.
Roter Himmel (Afire) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch a clip from Roter Himmel (Afire) here: