Bringing Life to an Essence: Paula Beer Discusses “Afire”

“When you're too attached to things, you don't see anything anymore”: the actress reflects on her latest film with Christian Petzold.
Chloe Lizotte

Afire (Christian Petzold, 2023).

Paula Beer has said that she wants to avoid any clear overlaps with her personal life as she’s preparing a character. To her credit, there’s something about her acting that eschews biographical readings: she invites us into the present as her characters are experiencing it. Beer, who was born in Mainz, Germany, has been acting since she was a child; she was 14 when she stepped onto the set of her first movie, Chris Kraus’s The Poll Diaries (2010). Just a few years later, she won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for her turn as a young widow in François Ozon’s World War I drama Frantz (2016)—a performance that showed how, even in the framework of a fairly traditional romantic drama, Beer could hint subtly at her character’s interiority beyond what was on the page.

From there, it was a quick jump to the cycle of films for which she’s best known, a trio by Christian Petzold: Transit (2018); Undine (2020), for which she won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear; and, now, Afire (2023). She’s played characters who are entangled with history (Transit) and mythology (Undine), but they’re never weighed down by these associations; in Petzold’s vision, there’s an unlabored continuity between these contexts and our present. Beer slips naturally into this register, reactive to the unfolding drama while still offering a sturdy center of gravity. Following Petzold’s celebrated, decade-long collaboration with Nina Hoss—among them, his international breakout features Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014)—the energy inevitably shifts with a fresh face. Beer uses this newness to her advantage: she understands the power of a gesture or a glance to communicate an emotion, yet keeps aspects of her character perpetually unknowable. This is not to imply a mystery that needs to be solved, but to indicate that a film can only scratch the surface of a person. In Undine especially, this has an atmospheric, ghostly effect—as though her character is frozen in time, roaming the Earth for eternity, wrestling with the unresolved questions.

In Afire, we see traces of Beer’s character, Nadja, before we meet her. When novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert) and his photographer friend Felix (Langston Uibel) arrive at a summer house near the Baltic Sea, they discover the unwashed plates and refrigerated leftovers of a well-enjoyed dinner party, a record collection and an unmade bed. This is the opposite of a welcome surprise for the terminally grumpy Leon, who envisioned this as a secluded retreat to revise his second novel, Club Sandwich—which, with a title like that, is doomed from the start. From her first appearance, Nadja strikes an immediate contrast: she’s cool, perceptive, alert, curious. While Leon withdraws like a turtle into the safety of writerly pretensions—mainly, denying social contact in order to procrastinate—Nadja ventures out into the sunlight, open to other people, attuned to their reactions to the world. But Nadja is also no mere foil for Leon. Beer plays her with a confident solidity, seeking out others for connection, not validation. It’s clear she has a full life well beyond the film’s edges—she was off living it at the very beginning—and the best way to learn about it is simply to ask, not presume, as Leon learns much too late.

In June, I spoke to Beer about her earliest memories of performing onstage, embracing the energy of the sea for Afire, and why, if you’re not careful, the camera can “kill.”

Afire (Christian Petzold, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: You began acting as a child. How did you start out?

PAULA BEER: My best friends from school, when we were about eight years old, went to an after-school theater workshop. I was like, Well, if they're going down there, they’ll have rehearsals probably two times a week, and they won't be free in the afternoon. So I'll join them. I went with them to that workshop, and that was really fun. No one wanted to play the main character, because it was a dancing theater piece. I was like, Well, I already had to learn the lines for our first casting, so I could do that; I would feel comfortable doing that. And then I was playing this main character. 

Then we got invited to a theater festival, and I was like, Oh, shit, why did I do that? I have to get on stage. I was really, really frightened… But I went on stage, and all this fear was disappearing. I had this really cool costume; our parents helped make them, with these huge feathers, wings and everything. I really enjoyed dancing and telling the story. This was a very, very, very important moment: understanding that I feel different when I tell a story, and that it's about the story, not about me.

Cut to four years later: we moved to Berlin, and I wanted to continue acting, I really enjoyed it. And then I started at the Friedrichstadt-Palast, which is the revue theater in Berlin. I think it’s the biggest in Europe. They have a huge kids’ ensemble, and I was in the shows from the age of twelve. It was really professional. We were like 150 kids on stage for each show. That was being protected by the group, and not being on your own.

NOTEBOOK: What do you remember about those performances? I’m always amazed by memories like this—I think of when stage fright sets in around adolescence, but maybe it’s less intellectualized when you’re in grade school. There’s less self-consciousness, more of a sense of play.

BEER: When we ​were playing in kindergarten, we had this big yard with a treehouse. This was not a forest—maybe six trees—but for me, it was, like, the woods. We were playing like kids play: Okay, now, these people are coming from the woods, and now someone's attacking us. I always loved doing this, creating a very quick setup—who are we, what’s happening?—and then just playing. Maybe that's just what kids do, inventing a fantasy. Who do I want to be, and what can I do, and can I fly… I think maybe that just didn't stop.

So the joy of playing turned into acting. Of course, I was like, I need to learn things, and I need to understand how it professionally works. But that always comes from joy. Not from, I want to be an actress one day, but more like, I still like it. Plus, I’ve always had people around me who made it really comfortable, and really easy to focus.

Right before my first performance, we could see all these people through the curtain, waiting for the show to start. But then we lined up, holding hands, and it was like, I’ve got this. As soon as you're on stage, you kind of forget. It’s more, I'm telling you the story right now—maybe you don't like the story, but I’m just telling the story.

NOTEBOOK: You appeared in your first movie, The Poll Diaries, as a teenager, too. Hearing you speak about this energy from the audience, did it feel very different to transition to film acting?

BEER:  The casting director for my first movie saw me in school; they were doing street casting. I was 14. When we were about to shoot, I was like, What are all these people doing here—don’t we just need the camera and the director? I was really confused about how many people would be, Guys, what are you doing here? [Laughs.] I needed a bit of time to adapt to that, to [the idea] that there would be 30 people who are going to stay in the room.

But maybe acting itself doesn’t change. When you’re on stage, you need to make the style a bit bigger to fill the room, and you need a bit more power. For the camera, it’s just being in the present moment. For this movie, the director said, Paula, you need to think; the camera sees when you’re thinking. I think that’s the first thing I learned about film acting. The camera sees every line. And as soon as it's pushed, or it's not there, or you want to force it, you're done. The camera kills you.

Undine (Christian Petzold, 2020).

NOTEBOOK: That reminds me of the films you’ve made with Christian Petzold. You learn about characters through these very small moments of revealing behavior, the slightest detail of an expression. How did you begin working together?

BEER: The first time we met was for Transit. I got a call from Simone Bär, the great casting director who recently died. She was just amazing. She counseled me for the French movie by François Ozon, Frantz. Christian was helping Ozon with the film’s German dialogue, and they showed him some [of my] scenes. So Simone called me for Transit: “Christian Petzold would like to meet you.” But I didn’t have a script, and I didn’t have to prepare any scenes. I went, and he was sitting at a big table with the casting director. We were just chatting…Christian was asking me questions about life, and this and that. 30 or 40 minutes later, we started talking about the movie. At the end, he said, “I’ll send you the script. I’d like for you to play Marie.” I was like, Ah…! Okay. I thought I was just meeting him, and we were having a good conversation. 

From the first moment on, he really put trust in me, and told me, “I like your work, and you don’t need to prove that; I just want to work with you.” That’s just how Christian is. He doesn’t want to bring people into a situation to say, “Okay, but now show me that you’re good.” It’s more like, “I know you’re good, and I still like you. I just want to know if you’re still interested in that character, or these ideas.” 

NOTEBOOK: What was it like to work with him on set? I know rehearsals are a big part of his process.

BEER: I didn’t know what the process would be like at first, so I asked him. He said, “In the morning, we have a rehearsal for two or three hours, and we don’t start before 8:00 because I think actors are tired then, and that’s not good. So we start late, rehearse, and it’s just us, the director and the actors. We just rehearse for as long as we need. You go to makeup and they prepare the set, you come back, we shoot one take, change the lens, shoot another take. And then in the afternoon, we’re done.” And I was like, “What?! How is that possible?” So with Transit, I discovered his style of working. And I discovered what movies mean to him, what stories mean to him. How he sees characters and how he sees older cinema, his film education. 

It was really easy with him because he’s a very nice person. I think for Afire it got even more relaxed, because he’s always working with the same people in the crew. There’s really this Christian Petzold bond. We’re like five actors. The crew wasn't big, and we actually only had two main sets, the house and the sea. And I suppose a bit in the beach promenade, and the hospital… It was just a very great time that, in the best sense, doesn't feel like work. I'm surrounded by really nice people, the actors are amazing, we have so much time, we don't have pressure. I want to work like this all the time. I don’t want to go back! [Laughs.]

Afire (Christian Petzold, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Afire is quite contained, but it’s also more of an ensemble piece than Transit and Undine. How did you and the group strike the right dynamic on set?

BEER: Two or three weeks before shooting, Christian meets with all his actors and goes to every set—just to the places, before it actually is a film set. As a group, we went to the house in the forest, and then we went to the Baltic Sea, to the beach. We did that with Undine and Transit as well. But especially here, when we went to the sea… For me, that changed a lot, because it was just us on the sea. We were shooting on a sort of private island, so there was actually no one. I forgot how big the impact of the sea is when there's nothing built by humans. Just nature. That was really important: to have this vibe, to get the energy the sea has.

So we built up this whole thing in rehearsals, and we were a really familiar group. Out of the movies I’ve done so far, I think this is the movie I like the most. The way that we made the movie is so much like the [final] movie. And I loved discovering how Thomas would read Leon; I didn't expect that. We had worked together when I was eighteen, so many years ago. But I loved how he was working in that office, and his sense of humor.

NOTEBOOK: Nadja is different from the characters you played in Transit and Undine in that she’s not wrapped up in associations with mythology, or the weight of history. What was it like to find your way into that sort of character, or a film with a different mood? As you mention, there’s also more of a playful streak here, with Leon’s character.

BEER: Sometimes, the less you know about characters, the harder it gets. So supporting characters are kind of the biggest challenge. In a way, it's freeing, because you're not responsible for the whole arc, but in the same way, you don't get as much information. So it's on you to make it work. At first with Nadja, I was like, Who is she? But then I thought, Let's forget all these questions about how to create a character. Because the main essence of Nadja is just to be in the moment, and trust the moment, and let people be who they are, and not to force them into expectations or fulfillment. 

Because I know Christian so well, I was relaxed enough and trusted him enough to allow myself [to enter] this state, to be more open. I was always a perfectionist, very controlled about my preparation. I was on a TV show, Bad Banks; the [production] speed is really fast, so you need to know the structure, which scene is before and how it ended. I was really good at preparing the character’s exact journey. With Christian, I learned to trust the process and be more fluid in reacting to, What are my partners doing? How does it feel to be in this house today? Maybe it's completely different to what I thought, but I like it right now, and I want to adjust to the moment. 

In the beginning, though, it really stressed me [out] to find Nadja. She’s very mature, but in a cool way; not annoying, but tough... She's kind of everything. This person who is really at ease, and just fine with who she is. Of course, that frightened me a bit: Well…play that. [Laughs.] Maybe because I followed, not led, that energy from Nadja emerged, and the rest happened. I think when you're too attached to things, your eyes get closed, and you don't see anything anymore. Nadja is just the opposite. Focusing on Leon sometimes helped me to understand Nadja a bit better, because she often is the opposite, bringing the imbalance.

NOTEBOOK: It’s true, he has this labored intensity with everything that’s often quite comical. But you’re almost saying in response, Don’t try to figure me out, I’m just here, this is who I am. You can learn about me if you ask about me.

BEER: Exactly. If you’re interested, you can learn about me. But if you’re not interested, you won’t.

NOTEBOOK: I love the outdoor dinner scenes for this reason. The story is told through the way the characters look at each other while processing new information about each other. In one of these scenes, you recite a poem, Henrich Heine’s “The Asra.” How do you approach preexisting texts when you’re creating a character—when you’re trying to figure out how they’d respond to it, and what it reveals about them?

BEER: Well, there was a similar situation with Undine, when I had to prepare this huge presentation that she wrote. You learn something about your character, it gets you closer to her. That was Undine’s presentation; that's how she sees things. With the poem as well, if that's her favorite poem, what does it tell [us] about Nadja? What connects that poem to how she thinks about love, what does that mean? I think if you know the favorite thing of someone when you begin, you think, I understand you a little bit better

But bringing that text to the scene was a bit frightening, in a way. As soon as you recite a poem, it’s like, Is the rhythm correct? Does it work? Is it boring? Or does it suddenly feel like, Well, I know some lines, I'm gonna tell you my lines…

NOTEBOOK: The overly studied approach.

BEER: Exactly. Christian offered to go through the lines beforehand, but I wasn’t sure. Maybe it's good not to do that, to not bring it to a professional form. Nadja is not a professional [at reciting] poetry, but it's her favorite poem. Maybe it should just…speak…out of her, what she loves about it. 

It’s funny, I had learned the poem before and liked it, and had thought about it a lot. But when I recited it to the others, it really got a different vibe. They had read it in the script, but it's different when you read something than when you really understand or discover something. And then I was like, Oh, actually, they do like it. This poem really adds power. It was special, really, because we don't read poems out loud to each other nowadays. But they can bring something about life to an essence.

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