‘Roter Himmel (Afire)’ review: Paula Beer is on fire in Christian Petzold’s tragicomic climate crisis allegory | Berlinale
Berlin Film Festival favourite Christian Petzold is back in competition with his latest film, Roter Himmel, titled Afire in English. Thomas Shubert stars alongside long-time Petzold collaborator Paula Beer, Langston Uibel and Enno Trebs in a remarkably naturalistic film that marks a change in Petzold’s filmography as he turns towards tragicomedy.
Everything begins as Leon (Thomas Schubert), a novelist working on his second book, and Felix (Langston Uibel), an art student, make the journey from Berlin to Germany’s northern Baltic sea coastline. After having serious car troubles (the engine literally blows up), they make it on foot to Felix’s mum’s seaside cottage. As they arrive, Felix gets a phone call from his mum explaining there’s been a mix up as they are not alone. Nadja (Paula Beer), who claims to be a seasonal worker, occupies one of the rooms and happily lives alongside her newfound roommates. Leon’s demeanor is terrible as he awaits his publisher (Matthias Brandt), who is due to visit and go over the latest manuscript of his novel, funnily titled “Club Sandwich”. His attitude affects everyone around him.
Roter Himmel is an easy going film for the most part with Petzold swaying towards a more casual writing style, while retaining and still being as reliably sharp as ever. Petzold gets the audience laughing with fiery quips, these jokes are Leon-centric as he fails to write and refuses to tag along on beach trips, coming up with lazy reasons not to interact. There is true realness to Petzold’s eclectic ensemble. Schubert delivers a great, nuanced performance as Leon, who is always on edge, full of angst and is extremely sensitive. While his anxiety and demeanor towards others often feels overboard, he never loses the empathy of those watching. It’s vehemently clear that Leon has deep-seated troubles being social, but also as a writer he lacks life experience. He is unabashedly naive about his work, refusing to acknowledge that his second novel is atrocious. Paula Beer’s Nadja is a warming, kind presence. She, like Felix, is patient and sweet with Leon, but when tested Beer’s Nadja can snap. Beer’s performance is the unequivocal standout in Petzold’s delicate, but fun comitragedy
With the ferocious forest fire looming, they choose to ignore the air raid sirens wailing as they believe they’re safe, thanks to a theory they hear about coastal winds blowing it elsewhere. Needless to say, mother nature cares little for those who ignore its warnings. The flames burning down the forests of Germany’s Baltic coast act as an extra layer of pressure that threatens to engulf Leon as he struggles to finalise his manuscript. Not only is Leon unable to work properly, his writer’s block extends into his social life, he rejects company at every turn.
The film also works as an allegory for the world’s ongoing climate crisis. As we live in a world threatened by natural disasters, everyday life can be uprooted even in the most unsuspecting of places. A rainless summer, as evidenced by 2022’s forest fires throughout Europe, is a nightmare for even the most northern, and traditionally milder, locations. Petzold has additionally stated that this is the next part in his elements trilogy, focusing on fire this time after Undine’s water focus. The fiery German skies are hauntingly shot by Petzold’s go-to cinematographer Hans Fromm with beautiful sun-drenched shots litter the film, perfectly capturing the scorching summer heat.
Petzold never loses sight of his film’s underlying levity, despite having fun with this chamber piece. The film is often a whisker away from being weighty, teetering on the edge of becoming a full-on tragedy. Roter Himmel is ultimately about human nature, the need to escape from what absorbs you and embracing those around you. It’s told with an understated, subtle touch that nudges one to uncover its moral and social messages. Petzold’s use of Austrian song “In My Mind” perfectly encapsulates Schubert’s struggle, the lyrics round out the film in a neat, masterful knot.
This review is from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival.