While German helmer Brigitte Maria Bertele’s first fiction feature, “A Hero’s Welcome,” examined the trauma of war, her second, “The Fire,” deals with the trauma of rape. Both offer protagonists desperate to get beyond the devastating experience that cut them off from their former existence. Bertele’s competent direction, which snagged her Montreal’s helming prize, is distinguished mainly by its cool restraint, counterpointing the paranoia and rage of the film’s increasingly obsessed heroine whose quest for justice transforms into a thirst for revenge. Yet the pic’s distance from its subject may register as too emotionless to hook arthouse auds.
Sticking closely to Johanna Stuttmann’s tight script, Bertele reveals little of the heroine’s circumstances prior to the rape, which occurs very early in the film. When her b.f. of six years calls to cancel their planned salsa-dancing evening, Judith (Maya Schone) takes to the floor alone, and her joyously uninhibited moves attract a talented partner in Ralph (Wotan Wilke Mohring), who later volunteers to accompany her when she is menaced by a group of local louts. Judith accepts Ralph’s escort only to be brutally beaten and dragged offscreen, where the rape occurs.
Judith completely shuts down after the assault, hiding under the covers in her bed until sympathetic significant other Georg (Mark Waschke) encourages her to seek redress and report her attack to the police. Unfortunately, the rapist turns out to be a respected surgeon who denies Judith’s allegations by claiming the sex was consensual, adding insult to injury by suing her for false arrest.
Denied justice, Judith fixates on the man who arrogantly stole her autonomy, determined to make him pay. As she single-mindedly pursues revenge, her obsession separates her from her caring lover — and from her job as a physical therapist — even more absolutely than the rape. She becomes a creature of the night, almost unrecognizable in her drab coat and unkempt hair, her drive for vengeance causing her to veer off in unexpected, dangerous directions.
Helmer Bertele focuses almost exclusively on Judith; other characters are defined by their roles in her drama, from the nice boyfriend who doesn’t deserve her indifference to the rapist’s wife (Ursina Lardi) who remains unsuspecting in her bourgeois gentility. The only person who captures Judith’s interest, and by extension, the viewer’s, is her lawyer Stein (Florian David Fitz), whose initial callousness and later somewhat creepy sexuality more closely ally him with the rapist. But the film never really follows through on this potentially fascinating subplot.
Though the pic’s focus narrows under the pressure of Judith’s obsession, lenser Hans Fromm rarely assumes a purely subjective p.o.v. nor strictly subscribes to any one visual approach. “Fire,” in fact, briefly toys with many types of post-rape genres, from impressionistic psychological case studies like Ida Lupino’s groundbreaking “The Outrage,” to Jonathan Kaplan’s social drama “The Accused” and its Lifetime Movie cousins, to vigilante actioners like “The Brave One” and “Ms. 45.”