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Roter Himmel

Directed by Christian Petzold
Produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber, and Anton Kaiser
Written by Christian Petzold
With: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Enno Trebs, Langston Uibel, and Matthias Brandt
Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Editing: Bettina Böhler
Runtime: 102 min
Release Date: 20 April 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

The prolific German writer/director Christian Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix, Transit) returns with this contemporary examination of that omnipresent member of modern society, the mediocre white male. Leon (Thomas Schubert) is a young writer who takes a working vacation by the Baltic Sea at the family summer home of his photographer buddy Felix (Langston Uibel). When the two friends arrive at the cottage, they discover Felix's mother has rented one of the rooms to a mysterious and sexy young woman named Nadja (Petzold regular Paula Beer). Nadja proves a tremendous distraction for the put-upon Leon, who is trying to finish his second novel in time for a meeting with his highbrow book editor. The insufferably grouchy Leon desperately needs validation, artistic and otherwise, but what he gets on this trip is brutally honest feedback from every direction, the kind that will either cause him to retreat further into his self-righteous self-loathing or cause him to confront his anti-social temperament head-on.

The physically bulky and always overdressed Leon exists on the outskirts of the beautiful setting he's placed himself in, constantly observing but never participating in all the fun his emotionally, intellectually, and sexually liberated housemates engage in. Also on the fringes of the idyllic location is a rapidly encroaching forest fire. The raging blaze threatening to destroy the lovely and modest enclave is a pretty obvious metaphor, but what Petzold does with it is entirely unexpected.

While not as gripping as Petzold's earlier work, this light and playful yet unmistakably caustic comedy is a pleasant change of pace from the director's usual politically focused historical dramas, mysteries, and thrillers. The picture's vibe is part modern "hang-out movie," part Eric Rohmer homage/critique, and part portrait of the wannabe artist as a young solipsistic bore. The resolution doesn't satisfy as much as I think it's meant to, but Afire resonates on multiple levels and sticks with you long after the sun has gone down.

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Thomas Schubert embodies the archetypal mediocre white male in Christian Petzold's portrait of the wannabe artist as a young solipsistic bore, a surprisingly laidback change of pace from the director's usual politically focused historical dramas.