To Return to Innocence From the Other Side: Christian Petzold on Afire

In the films of Christian Petzold, the past is never truly past. 

From postwar noir “Phoenix,” about a Holocaust survivor, to the temporally ambiguous “Transit,” set in a purgatorial Europe on the eve of fascist occupation, the German filmmaker’s work is haunted by lingering specters of his home country’s history, which possess his protagonists as they navigate the uncertainties of the present. 

Though “Afire,” Petzold’s rueful new comedy of manners (now in theaters), is set in a contemporary Germany on the brink of climate collapse, its characters are each ensnared by forces outside of their control: some made visible by their conflicting outlooks on love and labor, others suggested by their relationships to 19th-century German literature, and others still bound up in a sun-dappled, slow-burning atmosphere.

In the Silver Bear winner, writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) and photographer Felix (Langston Uibel) encounter unexpected guests at Felix’s family’s holiday home by the Baltic Sea, where they have traveled to work in the dry heat of summer. An enigmatic and beautiful young woman, Nadja (Paula Beer), distracts Leon from finishing his latest novel and challenges his antisocial attitudes, even as Felix revels in her company and grows even closer with Devid (Enno Trebs), a handsome rescue swimmer. Unlike the others, who take the season’s languor and leisure in free-spirited stride, Leon cannot set aside his fruitless self-preoccupation, an oppressive and stifling egotism that isolates him to no end. As a forest fire rages in the distance, inevitably intruding upon their idyll, the group’s apprehensions and tensions—their passionate sense of possibilities seized and missed—combust in surprising, strange, ultimately tragic fashion.

Critically acclaimed and commercially successful, Petzold is one face of the post-German-unification film movement known as the Berlin School, whose members make intimate and often oblique films concerned with matters of personal and national identity, coming to terms with Germany’s history by exploring its effect on the country’s modern social condition. Breezy, sensual, and lighter-hearted than Petzold’s previous work, “Afire” fits as well into this project, reconstituting the indolence and spontaneity of German youth in the vein of Éric Rohmer’s “La Collectionneuse” while skewering Petzold’s own experiences as a less confident, more self-conscious filmmaker.

In New York last week, Petzold spoke with about the evolving subject of work, the dystopian ideology of cleansing fire, and the nature of innocence. “I like it, sitting here,” he says as we begin our conversation. “Because of the jetlag, I’m a bit dizzy, but it’s a good feeling, to be dizzy. I am so in control my whole life. These dizzy moments, now, are fantastic.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

How have you been enjoying your time in New York? 

I must say, I’m very impressed by Criterion. I was there, [at their New York headquarters,] and felt like a child when I saw all these posters and DVDs. The atmosphere conveys that they love cinema, in a very good way. I have never seen such a company in Germany. I walked around and looked at the fantastic artwork, at the movie posters they [commissioned,] from fantastic painters and graphic novelists. Their screening room was open. A group of pupils were coming in with their teacher to see “M,” by Fritz Lang. The teacher said, “Hey, you’re from Germany. Can you say something to them about Fritz Lang?” 

I had to go into the screening room in front of the pupils, who were shy, because someone was coming from Germany to talk about Lang, about his [meeting] with Joseph Goebbels, about Gustaf Gründgens and fascism. It was a fantastic 10 minutes, because I know deep in my heart I want to be a teacher of cinema. I want to have a cinema of my own and want, the whole day, to show pupils great movies from all different times, from all over the world. This was a fantastic moment, to find a screening room inside of this company. I could stay here for months, I think.

Criterion’s focus on film preservation and restoration is so valuable; it’s dedicated to cinema, and the presentation of its releases—essays, interviews, director commentaries—makes it clear those involved care about honoring film’s cultural legacy, about giving their audience a kind of film-school education. I’m not surprised you’re enjoying your time there.

Tomorrow, I’ll have to be in the Criterion closet for half an hour to talk about the DVDs and Blu-rays I find there. In the rehearsal, the first DVD they showed me was “People on Sunday,” directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, from a story by Billy Wilder, from 1930. This was a big shock for me because this was the most important movie for me in making “Afire,” out of all of them. We had a whole program and thought about the films of Éric Rohmer, the novels of Chekhov, and so on. 

I was thinking about “People on Sunday” a lot during the time when I was infected with COVID, back when there was no vaccine. Set in Germany, made in 1930, it’s a movie about summer and young people, made with a clear and fresh camera, with clear and fresh people. When you see this film, you think that fascism never had a chance in Germany, because the working class has so much lust for life. Three years later, everything was destroyed, and the three directors from the movie had to leave Germany, to go to Hollywood. There, they made film noir, but there was no summer. This type of summer movie was destroyed, as all summer movies in Germany have been destroyed since 1933. 

This was, for me, the start of “Afire,” thinking to myself, “What happened there?” The Americans, the French, and the Swedish—like Ingmar Bergman, with “Summer with Monika”—all have summer movies, which are so important. In summer movies, there’s no state, no parents, no school, no factory. We have a break in life, and, in this break, something’s decided. Some things are at work; some things you make wrong, and some things you make right. Love might be at work, or that love could turn out to be a misunderstanding. Germans, we lost our summer. Together with the actors, I thought about summer movies in Germany—and why, in the German summer movies of nowadays, in each picture, there are parents, factories, and policemen. We don’t have our freedom. It was destroyed in 1933.

Your films combine certain temporalities, between past and present and future. “Afire” is set in the present, but its use of voice-over suggests it might be a memory, or Leon’s adaptation of events, playing out on screen. This made me consider the difficulty of someone like Leon, who doesn’t experience the present moment, whose artistic ideas are informed by the past, and whose existence suffers as a result. Are artists always working in a time out of time?

We made this house, this cabin in the woods, ourselves. It didn’t exist. The forest glade, we made our own, and we made our own beach. They existed, yet we created them. The people swimming there were not really there; the film is not a documentary. But as we built “Afire,” we reflected on all the things we built, and on all the cabins in the woods, forest glades, and beaches in the history of storytelling—not only cinema, but also literature, theater, Shakespeare, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We were working in a tradition. 

Howard Hawks made remakes of his own movies; we could have a long discussion about that. I think storytelling itself is always a remake. I don’t like to go into movies about which somebody says, “This is a completely new story I’ve never heard of before.” I love remakes. For hundreds of years, we’ve been telling the same stories, each time always in a different way. Éric Rohmer was always criticized by really sh*t people, who always said he made the same movie over and over. His films were similar, but as Bill Clinton might say, “It’s the differences, stupid!” 

As filmmakers, when we create, we are a part of history and the present in the same moment. This is cinema: to live in the past, in a sentimentality, and also in the present. That also has something to do with summer. In the American summer movies, like “Stand By Me,” it’s a memory of something which happened, but you can see and feel it now, in this moment. All summer movies have this in common; they are at once in the present and a memory of what you miss, or of a mistake you made. Perhaps there was this moment, with this girl, where there was the possibility of a kiss, and you missed that moment. 30 years later—when you have COVID, and you are lying in bed—you will know that this was the mistake of your life. And this is the feeling we tell stories about.

You are always creating remakes of your experience; the remake is the telling of the story, not an original event. Leon doesn’t know this. He has not had this experience. He believes he is an artist and subject, though he is only playing an artist. When we created the [pergola,] his place where he works, we made it resemble a stage because he’s acting with his computer and reflective posing. It’s a ridiculous stage; he has yet to go through the experience of realizing that. I had this experience during my second film, “Cuba Libre,” in 1995. I was playing at being a director, a cineaste, and somebody had to tell me this, that I was acting as if the camera was on me. I was seeing myself on a stage. This was an important experience for me to communicate to the actor Thomas Schubert, and it was important for the whole work. 

As this fire rages closer to the house, Leon remains glumly self-absorbed, which reminds me of how your characters are often trapped by these external and internal circumstances rather than one or the other. Can you discuss creating that atmosphere on screen, where we’re focused on characters whose preoccupations are personal even as they are confronted with looming, existential threats?

In German, there’s a word that means “fire to cleanse the world.” It’s in the ideology of dystopian movies that we need cleansing fire. I hate this, totally. I have long discussions with my 23-year-old son, who’s a gamer. I asked him why, in all his games, we have this dystopian environment. The world has ended, and you have to fight by yourself as an individual. All of these things are a part of “Afire” and all beliefs of Leon. He never goes to the water. He’s always ridiculous. All these fantastic things that happen between people, he believes we don’t need them anymore. And because we make tabula rasa, we have created a new world, new cinema, and new gaming landscape just so.

At a rehearsal, Paula Beer told me later, when Thomas Schubert had read the first lines as his character during the cold reading rehearsal, she knew why she fell in love with him. Not because he’s a fantastic actor, but because she saw that he was so closed, so ridiculous, so in the wrong ideology, that she had to rescue him. Sometimes, to rescue someone is deeper than to fall in love. And this was fantastic for me to feel, as it was my position toward him as well. You look at him and say, “Oh my god, man. What are you doing?” With one gesture, everything could open his heart, but he is fighting against that opening. I’m interested in people who fight against the person helping them. 

The actors and I believe the things we have in life are fantastic. We have dancing in the night. We have sexuality that changes. Someone’s taking photographs and working with a camera. The guy always talking about work is sleeping, and the other has ideas and takes photographs during his sleep. Why we have any desire to cleanse the world with fire, to put all of this away and create a new society, has something to do with capitalism. It’s science: we put carbon dioxide into the Earth, into the ocean, into space, and we kill it. But [a capitalist’s] position to the world is a dystopian position; that’s their narration, in storytelling. I love films that describe the world as a complex, mixed world, and that say to be cautious with all people who want to [segregate] it.

To your point, “Afire” sets out through its characters differing definitions of productive and unproductive labor, of what work is valued or not valued. In Leon, you illuminate a hypocrisy, a self-destructive tendency, inherent in the capitalist view of labor; trapped by his own narrow preconceptions about productivity, he does not invest in personal, social, or romantic areas of his life and, of course, is fully unproductive as a result. 

At the end of the ’90s, [frequent collaborator] Harun Farocki and I stayed together in Berkeley. He was a professor there, at the University of California, Berkeley. I visited him, and we started writing a script together. He said to me, “One of our tasks for the future is that we’re living in a society based on work.” Our work is our identity, and our identity is work. When you are at a party in New York City, everybody’s asking you what you are working on. When you say nothing, you might as well leave the party, because nobody is interested in you, because you have no identity. My brother was out of work for over three years. It destroyed his life. You are not part of society any more. But work is leaving our society. It’s going away. What happens to a society based on work which doesn’t exist? This is a double-bind situation for people, and it’s in all of our films. 

In all my films with Harun Farocki and later on, as well, our characters had professions. They had work. They lose their work and want to come back to an identity. “Afire” is more a comedy about this subject of work because there’s Leon, from the 19th century, who wants to be an artist or a writer, and the others are very modern. They are working, but they don’t need work for their identity. Nadja is working for money, selling ice cream, and she never talks about it. This is not a problem for her. Felix takes photographs, and Devid works as a rescue swimmer, and they’re not talking about it. They can live without work as their identity. This could be the future, coming out of Protestant ethics. This was the idea. When two different times, the 19th century and the 21st century, come together, it can lead to comedy. 

When Leon’s agent (Matthias Brandt) arrives to give notes and read the manuscript aloud, we get a glimpse of how arrogant and phony Leon’s writing is and how cliché its perspective on the world is, as he writes about this lonely traveler who resents others for having children and living in Berlin townhouses. Meanwhile, it never occurs to Leon how other forms of work could be liberating, even as Felix is inspired by his experiences with Nadja and Devid. I found Leon’s personal stagnation, and its roots in an internalized need to uphold literary traditions that no longer reflect how we live our lives, quite compelling.

Yes, that’s completely right. About the story, “Club Sandwich,” I remember there was a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, titled The Lost Decade, about a guy who has gone away for 10 years and comes back to find that all these friends he’d had fantastic parties and champagne with now have children, are living in townhouses, and have jobs. He’s the loneliest man in the world. This was the reference for “Club Sandwich.” 

But, for me, it was hard to write a bad novel. Two or three bad sentences, and it’s a caricature of a bad novel. But this is Leon’s novel. I had to respect him, and even in writing his bad novel, I had to respect him, so I used Fitzgerald’s story and made it about clubbing in Berlin. I was so proud when I wrote two or three pages in two or three days. When the actors, in a cold-reading rehearsal, started laughing about it and making bad jokes about the novel, calling it the worst story they’d ever heard in their lives, I was not only disappointed but also angry and offended. I said, “It’s not that bad a story.” 

And so we talked together: about Leon, about this construction of 19th-century artists, about myself, in my time when I was in Leon’s position and had to make my second movie. This was such a deep discussion, one I’d never had with actors before, I must say. They destroyed me, but they loved talking with me [about that] which relieves me. 

“Afire” continues your collaboration with Paula Beer, after “Transit” and “Undine.” Nadja, her character, gives Leon a chance to escape his self-imposed loneliness but is already making use of her own free time, living a full life Leon becomes aware of too late. As “Afire” plays out from Leon’s perspective, Nadja is elusive and idealized to the audience as well. What conversations did you and Beer have about her place in the narrative?

In Germany, critics have on occasion said about an actress that she can “play with the camera.” I don’t like this so much. Talking with Paula Beer about this. I said, “This movie’s about Leon, this 19th-century artist who’s only watching the world. And we are watching him. It’s a portrait of an artist who watches the world but is not a part of it.” And this was very important for Paula. She says, “I don’t want to play with the camera. The camera does not exist for me. I’m there for myself.” 

On the first day of shooting, we shot the scene where she’s taking clothes out for drying and wearing this red dress. In that scene, she’s entirely for herself. She doesn’t need us, and she’s not flirting or seducing. She does not vanish in front of us. When someone is on a bicycle and leaving the scene, most directors of photography want them to go across the camera, because then they’re very close to us. Nadja goes through an opening in the forest, and then she vanishes because she’s not doing anything for us. We have to prove ourselves to her, but she does not have to do the same for us. This is something modern that Leon, with his 19th-century notions of seduction, projection, and so on, cannot understand. 

You have mentioned Chekhov’s short stories, such as The House with the Mezzanine, as an inspiration for “Afire,” and I was curious whether Nadja was named for the protagonist in “The Betrothed,” whose lust for life causes her to run away from home and attend university, asserting independence and turning her back on tradition. Paula’s characters in your films retain this opacity, and an independence from our conceptions of them; she plays them as existing away from the audience and almost outside of the film itself.

That’s right. When I met her first for “Transit,” we were at rehearsals in Marseille. Franz Rogowski, Paula, and I were sitting there at a table on the roof of the hotel, and we were talking about the scenes. Paula said to me, “I have a question. This book was written by Anna Seghers, a female writer, and all these characters in her book are described as having a certain smell and a body. The only character who has no smell and no body, who’s a projection of male subjectivity, is my character, Marie, which is also a religious name. She’s innocent; there’s no sexuality in her, nothing.” Paula didn’t like that and didn’t want to ‘be a Marie.’ I said, “What do you think?” She said, “I want to work on her body, so I will have something of my own.” She takes this research into a subject of her own into her acting. She was not saying, “I want to have it now.” Her desire to have an identity, it’s her work. I remain very impressed by this. Her reflections always open the character up. Many people say, “Actors who think are not good actors,” but she’s really great; that was my first, deepest impression of her.

On the other hand, I had talked about Hitchcock, about movies with subjectivity, whose cameras gaze and are not simply surveillance cameras. The next day, in Marseille, we received an Amazon Prime package, and she had ordered all the Hitchcock movies she wanted to see. She’s working hard. She wants to open herself to the world to have experiences. Therefore, I have a good connection to her. For the next movie we made, I took her to the shooting locations. She wanted to learn how I prepare rehearsals. 

I have to trust her, because when she reflects, she becomes innocent. It’s not that you destroy innocence through reflection. When we rehearsed the scene where she reads Heinrich Heine’s poem, The Asra, I spoke to all the actors about Heinrich von Kleist, because he’s mentioned in the scene. In one essay by von Kleist, On the Marionette Theater, both the narrator and a dancer he speaks with discuss the theater. One of them says that Adam and Eve lost their innocence, and so humanity was cast out of paradise. Innocence, here, means without any reflection or consciousness. 

If the unintelligent person wants to come back to a state of innocence, they think they can return the same way; they stand in front of a closed door and wish they could come inside, to regain their innocence. Meanwhile, the only work that intelligent people have is to look all over the world, to find a second entrance into paradise, to return to innocence from the other side. You have to work—to reflect, to improve, to rehearse—to find innocence. You can’t find it in the absence of work, by itself. You have to work for it, and this is something that Paula knows.

We first see Nadja through the window of the house when Leon’s outside in the garden. I’m curious about your approach to filming characters in and outside of the house; where they are spatially in relation to one another, communicate their interpersonal relationships, and how they can be open or closed to one another.

This house, in “Afire,” doesn’t exist as it appears in the film. It’s an old house, without doors, in the middle of the forest. It gave us the possibility to build a house ourselves as if we were in the studio. Together with Hans Fromme, the director of photography, and Klaus-Dieter Gruber, the production designer, we discussed what the film was about. In “Transit,” all the rooms had to be transient spaces, with two doors and two windows, not caves but passages. “Afire” is about a man who’s watching the world, who cannot move from that precipice and trespass into the world. We are on his side. 

To portray him, we needed windows and doors. In all positions of the camera, you have a window and some view of the outside. But the wind moves through this picture. Everything’s open, but he’s closed, and in that he’s like poison, infecting the world with his negative attitude. Everyone else is moving inside and outside. The moments where he’s alone, and he’s watching the world or reading her diary or hearing her music, are the only ones where you feel something for him, because he’s opened himself to that. But when his friend returns from the beach, he closes everything down and gets back in position. The house provides the possibility of a fantastic life. He destroys all those possibilities himself because he’s an idiot and because I like to watch idiots on the screen. 

“Afire” is now playing in select U.S. theaters, with a regional expansion on July 28.

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