If any writer has ever retreated to a remote, idyllic rural pad with the intention of getting some work done, and proceeded to have a productive and creatively fulfilling time, it has certainly never happened in the movies. Leon, the callow young novelist at the center of Christian Petzold’s canny, many-layered new film “Afire,” is the latest in a long line of onscreen scribes to learn that lesson. But over the course of a hot, rainless summer by the Baltic coastline, the elusiveness of his imagined masterwork turns out to be far from his greatest problem: Writer’s block spills over into bitter social paralysis, exposing every facet of life he doesn’t yet know how to live, let alone write about. All the while, the surrounding woodsy landscape wilts and scorches, the threat of natural disaster lending an urgent pull to this dry, elegant comedy of manners — so dry, in fact, it’s just a breath of wind away from tragedy.
Arriving three years after the watery magical realism of Petzold’s “Undine,” “Afire” (the superior German title of which translates, a bit less grandiosely, as “Red Sky”) is apparently the middle entry in an intended trilogy based on the elements. Minus that symbolic connection, however, there’s little to bind this brisk, youthful, incrementally devastating character study to the updated romantic mythology of its predecessor. Thematically and politically, “Afire” is less rigidly conceived than much of the German auteur’s recent work, though it shouldn’t be mistaken for a slight diversion. A surfeit of questions about human nature and need emerge from the mess of its characters and their charged, brittle interactions: Art, etiquette, sexuality and friendship are all up for discussion, between skin-salting swims and glugs of white wine.
And then there’s the environment, caring little for the foibles and seductions and unfinished manuscripts of its human occupants, closing in on them with some menace as wildfires slice through the countryside. Leon (Thomas Schubert) and his best friend Felix (Langston Uibel) hear the red-flag warnings but don’t heed them, as they drive to Felix’s mother’s coastal cottage for a working vacation: Leon needs to finish the draft of his second novel ahead of a meeting with his publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt), while Felix has an art school application portfolio to crack on with. Nature is there to inspire, not antagonize, them, though when their car breaks down eight miles from the house, forcing an arduous trudge through the forest, Leon’s attitude begins to sour.
There’s worse news: Due to a miscommunication, the house is unexpectedly occupied. Bright, upbeat tenant Nadja (recent Petzold muse Paula Beer) is unfazed and happy to share; likewise the outgoing, socially limber Felix. For Leon, a man already not naturally inclined toward contentment, it’s ruinous, a change in plan that effectively gives him the excuse he was waiting for to sabotage his whole trip: stalling on a novel he inwardly suspects isn’t good enough anyway, pushing away Felix’s fraternal gestures, freezing out new acquaintances against his own more curious instincts.
With this mindset, the mere presence of others in his vicinity becomes an affront, not least when they’re enjoying themselves. Nadja’s nighttime frolics with local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs), as surmised via moans and giggles through thin bedroom walls, aggravate him beyond reason; when Felix crosses bedrooms, however, Leon treats it as a veritable betrayal.
Schubert’s expressively morose performance locates a rich seam of cringe comedy in Leon’s sullen self-absorption, as he shuffles from faux pas to faux pas with the same deadpan moue of disaffection, but resists villainizing him: There’s a deep, terrible sadness in his juvenile refusal to play with others, and his insistence on positing potential allies as enemies. When the hitherto patiently accommodating Nadja — played by Beer with a wily, surprisingly sharp-clawed reserve that cleverly unravels the idealized dreaminess of her previous Petzold characterizations — calls that bluff, telling Leon with curt candor what she thinks of him, the tables are exhilaratingly turned. What does a writer fear more, after all, than an honest assessment?
Petzold’s own writing, meanwhile, has never been this casually crisp or rawly funny, studded with throwaway barbs and loudly unspoken truths. There are shades here of Rohmer at his cruelest, or Baumbach at his coolest, until the final third, when the sharpest and most surprising of many deft tonal swerves connects this lithe relationship poker game with more literally elemental concerns of being, and staying, on this earth — a rude awakening for Leon, both as a man and as a writer, signaled by floating flecks of ash on the too-warm breeze.
It’s an audacious pivot, albeit one that returns Petzold to the register of lyrical melodrama in which he’s done much of his best work. When the film pauses for an exquisitely still, breath-catching reading of “The Asra,” Heinrich Heine’s short, bittersweet poem of waiting and yearning — only to double down on that indulgence with an immediate re-reading — it feels not a lofty reach but a comforting return to the director’s natural state.
Much else in “Afire” is as immaculate as we’ve come to expect from Petzold: the neat, lacerating folds of its narrative, the sharp contrast between inky shadow and sunburned color sustained by Hans Fromm’s lensing, the single evocative soundtrack selection sure to tumble around your brain for days after. (In this case, a gorgeous midnight-haze dance track called “In My Mind” by Austrian dream-pop outfit Wallners, bookending the film with opposite evocations of escape and mournful, nostalgic return.) But it’s the film’s great, disorienting structural risks, its humoring of human untidiness and confusion, that make it so subtly thrilling and moving. In depicting a novice artist forced to unwrite everything to move forward, “Afire” also shows a veteran one open to self-editing, and vigorous self-renewal.