Review: ‘Afire,’ starring Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs and Matthias Brandt

August 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel and Enno Trebs in “Afire” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)


Directed by Christian Petzold

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in in Germany near the Baltic Sea, the dramatic film “Afire” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A book author with writer’s block and his photographer friend share a remote vacation house together and meet two strangers who alter their lives, as a forest fire is in danger of getting close to their house.

Culture Audience: “Afire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching character-driven movies about blurred boundaries in relationships.

Thomas Schubert in “Afire” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

The moody and atmospheric drama “Afire” won’t captivate all viewers. However, this quietly intense film can find an appreciative audience with people who enjoy character studies where the cast members skillfully express spoken and unspoken dialogue. “Afire” also examines the repercussions and regrets of not expressing true emotions.

Written and directed by Christian Petzold, “Afire” had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear (second place) prize in the grand jury competition. The movie takes place in Germany, near the coast of the Baltic Sea. A beach property is the main location for the story. Although the movie has a relatively small number of people in its cast, “Afire” packs in some big emotions in the story.

“Afire” begins by showing book author Leon (played by Thomas Schubert) and his photographer friend Felix (played by Langston Uibel) traveling to the vacation house of Felix’s family. Felix’s father, who died six years earlier, used to own the house, which is now owned by Felix’s mother, who is never seen in the movie. It’s mentioned at some point in the movie that Felix and Leon are not only friends but they’ve also worked together on projects.

Leon (who is moody and standoffish) and Felix (who is friendly and outgoing) have very different outlooks to this getaway trip in this fairly remote area. Leon hopes that the isolated area will help him concentrate on finishing his upcoming novel, which he is calling “Club Sandwich.” Felix just wants to relax and have as much fun as possible.

There is a forest fire happening in the distance, but it’s not expected to get too close to the area where Leon and Felix are staying. The two friends experience a more immediate problem: Felix’s car runs out of gas, 12 kilometers away from the house, but they’re able to walk to the house with their luggage, with the assumption that the car can be dealt with later.

When Leon and Felix arrive at the house, it’s in disarray. The beds are unmade, and clothes are strewn everywhere. Felix then announces some news that Leon doesn’t want to hear: They won’t be living by themselves in this house. Felix explains that a Russian immigrant named Nadja will be staying there too.

Nadja is the niece of a coworker who works with Felix’s mother. Nadja is staying there as a favor because she’s working in the area by selling ice cream from an ice cream stand. Leon is slightly irritated when he finds out a third person will be living there. Leon insists on having his own room in this two-bedroom house so he can have peace and quiet to work on his book. The bedrooms are right next to each other.

Felix thinks that Nadja should have her own bedroom, while Leon and Felix can share the other bedroom. They both agree that either of them has the option to sleep on the living room couch if one of them needs the room all to himself at night, such as if an overnight guest is staying in the bedroom. Felix also suggests that if things get too noisy in the house, then Leon can always sleep under the pergola outside.

At first, Nadja (played by Paula Beer) is a mysterious presence who seems to come and go without any consistent schedule. She doesn’t have a car, so she travels by bicycle. Leon doesn’t meet Nadja until 24 minutes into this 102-minute movie. However, Leon is aware of Nadja’s presence long before he meets her in person. That’s because Nadja has been bringing a lover back to the house at night and loudly having sex with him.

The sex noises are loud enough that Leon can hear everything in the bedroom next door, so he tries to sleep on the living room couch, where he can still hear the commotion. Leon says out loud to himself, “I’m beginning to hate that woman.” And one night, when it happens again, he decides to sleep uncomfortably outside under the pergola. The next morning, he finds out that he has several bug bites.

Nadja’s lover is a local lifeguard who works at the nearest beach. His name is Devid (played by Enno Trebs), and he becomes a frequent guest at the house. When Leon and Nadja finally meet in person, they have an awkward but cordial conversation. She’s aware that Leon is annoyed by her loud sex noises interrupting his sleep, so she makes an apology and adds, “It won’t happen again.”

Although the first conversation between Leon and Nadja is uncomfortable for both of them, there is underlying sexual tension between them. Nadja and Devid have a casual, non-monogamous sexual relationship. Nadja does not want to describe Devid as her boyfriend, and they are not possessive of each other. Eventually, the sexual dynamics between Leon, Felix, Nadja and Devid start to change when it becomes obvious that Devid and Felix are sexually attracted to each other.

Leon has other worries besides whether or not Nadja finds him attractive. Leon’s book publisher Helmut (played by Matthias Brandt) is going to visit Leon at the house to read what Leon has written so far for Leon’s book manuscript. Apparently, Helmut and Leon don’t want to use email for this task. Leon is very apprehensive about this visit, because he’s afraid that Helmut won’t like what Leon has written so far.

“Afire” shows how all these tensions and fears permeate the interactions of the four people in this social group, especially with Leon, who has the movie’s main perspective. Leon doesn’t say it out loud, but he’s insecure about his physical appearance. His body language with Nadja indicates that he thinks she’s out of his league, when it comes to how physically attractive he is, so he overcompensates by trying to come across as a brooding and pompous intellectual.

As for the budding romance between Devid and Felix, it bothers Leon at first, because Leon apparently didn’t know that Felix is queer. By contrast, Nadja doesn’t seem bothered at all that Devid has become sexually interested in Felix. She shrugs it off as if it’s no big deal that Devid has lost interest in her sexually, and she acts as if her feelings aren’t hurt. This nonchalance intrigues Leon, who thinks there might be a chance that Nadja could develop an interest in Leon. Nadja is flirtatious with Leon but doesn’t give him much indication on which direction she wants to take her relationship with him.

“Afire” will keep viewers guessing on where the story is headed and what will happen to these characters. All of the cast members give good performances, but Schubert and Beer carry most of the emotional weight of the movie, since Leon and Nadja’s relationship anchors the story. It’s a movie that slowly sneaks up on viewers to deliver a stirring and poignant impact.

Sideshow and Janus Films released “Afire” in select U.S. cinemas on July 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Undine’ (2020), starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski

July 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Paula Beer in “Undine” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Undine” (2020)

Directed by Christian Petzold

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Berlin, the dramatic film “Undine” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A water sprite in human form is conflicted between two human lovers and how these romances will affect whether she will live happily ever after or if she will be doomed to a life that she doesn’t want.

Culture Audience: “Undine” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in artsy European films that are contemporary interpretations of fairy tales.

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in “Undine” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Based on the fairy tale about a water sprite who takes on the form of a human, the dramatic film “Undine” unfolds like a fever dream rather than straightforward story. The movie’s visuals and acting are compelling, but might not be enough to hold the interest of people who aren’t already familiar with the Undine mythology. It’s a movie that requires patience and curiosity to see how everything is going to end, because the heroine of the story wants to defy her fate.

Written and directed by Christian Petzold, “Undine” takes place in Berlin and has some bold-risk-taking in this often-abstract version of the Undine fairytale. This movie’s title character is Undine Wibeau (played by Paula Beer), a historian who works at the Senate for Urban Development and Housing, where she gives guided tours to visitors. Much of her guided tours involves showing model replicas of what Berlin and plans fo the city’s development. Undine looks like a woman who’s in her 20s, but she’s really a water sprite who has this curse of having to kill any man who becomes her lover and betrays her.

The beginning of the movie is the break-up scene that sets in motion what follows for the rest of the story. At a cafe table directly outside the building where Undine works, she is having lunch with her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Johannes (played by Jacob Matschenz), who is trying to let her down easily as he ends the relationship. It’s later revealed in the story that Johannes is already romantically involved with someone else named Nora (played by Julia Franz Richter), and he doesn’t want to leave Nora to be with Undine.

As Johannes leaves the table to gets some coffee, Undine starts crying but quickly wipes away he tears when Johannes comes back to the table. She tells him ominously, “You said you love me forever. If you leave, I have to kill you. If you leave here, you have to die.”

Undine says that she has to go back to work because that she will return to the table in half and hour when she’s on her break. She tells Johannes that she expects him to be at the table when she gets back. And when she sees him again, Undine tells Johannes that he better declare his love for her. She even looks out of the building window to check and see if Johannes is still there.

If would be incorrect to assume that “Undine” is going to turn into a “Fatal Attraction” type of movie, with Undine as the jilted lover who spends most of the story stalking the man who dumped her. Instead, this artfully directed but quirky film goes in an entirely different direction. Shortly after this break-up with Johannes, Undine meets another man who becomes her next love. His name is Christoff (played by Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver with an introverted personality.

Whereas Johannes was cold and standoffish, Christoff is warm and romantic. After one of Undine’s guided tours, which had Christoff in the tour group, Christoff shyly approaches Undine, flatters her about her tour guide skills, and asks her out on a date. Undine is so distracted over her problems with Johannes that she just stares at Christoff and doesn’t give an answer.

Christoff nervously backs into a shelf, which causes the other furniture in the room to vibrate. This movement has a domino effect that ends with a very large aquarium in the room tipping over and smashing completely. The force of the water crashes over Christoff and Undine, who are both knocked to the ground.

It’s an awkward way to start a relationship, but somehow this bizarre accident quickly bonds Christoff and Undine together. They have a passionate romance, which includes their shared love of diving underwater. During one of their diving dates, Christoff demonstrates a romantic gesture by showing Undine a brick wall that has her name on it.

Christoff begins to suspect that there’s something unusual about Undine during this diving date, when she briefly disappears underwater. When Christoff sees Undine a minute or two later, she’s holding on to a dolphin, but she isn’t wearing her scuba gear. Undine suddenly passes out from lack of oxygen.

Christoff rescues Undine and gives her cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), while chanting the chorus to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive.” (It’s one of the movie’s many quirks.) Undine makes a quick recovery and asks Christoff to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her again. He’s reluctant to do so because he’s afraid someone might see them and think she’s really in distress. Christoff tells Undine that he can grant her wish when they get home.

“Undine” is filled with scenes like that, where not everything fits in a cohesive manner, but the the details of movie are presented like a jigsaw puzzle that viewers are expected to piece together on their own. Johannes isn’t completely out of the picture. There’s a pivotal scene on a bridge where Christoff and Undine are embracing each other as they walk past another couple, who are walking in the opposite direction.

The other couple are Johannes and Nora. Undine stares at Johannes, Christoff notices, and Christoff expresses some insecurity that Undine’s heart started to beat faster when she looked at the other man. Undine won’t tell Christoff about Johannes or her history with him, but this encounter plants some seeds of jealousy in Christoff. Meanwhile, Christoff has a co-worker named Monika (played by Maryam Zaree) who might have more than platonic feelings for Christoff.

Cinematically, “Undine” is a gorgeous and sometimes haunting film to watch. However, it’s not the type of movie that will be enjoyed by people who want to see more conventional ways of telling a love story. The movie’s greatest strengths are in how it presents thought-provoking themes about destiny versus free will, as well as forgiveness versus revenge, and how these themes fit into the overall concept of pursuing love that makes someone happy. Petzold’s direction and the cast members’ acting achieve a tricky balance of bringing a realistic emotional tone to a fairy tale that’s been told many times but never before in this idiosyncratic and memorable way.

IFC Films released “Undine” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 4, 2021. The movie was released in Germany and other countries in 2020.

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