Burning Down The House: Christian Petzold on "Afire"

The director discusses his Silver Bear-winning film about a self-centered author struggling to finish his new book during a seaside holiday.
Luise Mörke, Tobias Rosen

Afire (2023).

In February, Christian Petzold’s new film Afire premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it received the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. Set on the Baltic coast of Germany, the story follows novelist Leon (Thomas Schubert), who has escaped the city with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel), intending to put the finishing touches on his second book. Instead, the two become romantically enmeshed with Nadja (Paula Beer), a literary scholar who spends the summer selling ice cream, and the local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs).  

Unlike the others, Leon cannot embrace the season’s lighthearted self-abandonment and wanders sleeplessly through blue nights without darkness. All the while, forest fires blaze in the distance. At first, they only reach the protagonists as rumors, sounds of helicopters, and glowing red skies (the German title of the film means “Red Sky”), until the threat finally encroaches upon the immediate forests. Through delicately constructed relationships, Afire navigates the follies, risks, and yields of delving into emotions as discomfiting as shame and as unpredictable as love.

At a remove from the hubbub of the festival, we shared a conversation with Petzold about the emotional density of the film’s environment, inflected by the pressures of the economy and climate catastrophe. This interview has been translated from German.

NOTEBOOK: Your last two films both draw on literature: Undine (2020) was inspired by an Ingeborg Bachmann story, and Transit (2018) was based on a novel by Anna Seghers. Afire, like many of your previous films, contains an abundance of references to books, poems, and authors: Heinrich Heine, Uwe Johnson, the book Leon is trying to write, and a fictional novel called Shadows which he reads on the beach. How does your new film relate to the genre of literary adaptations?

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: The word “adaptation” contains everything I am working against. It means that you give form to a so-called “content.” [Editor's note: he uses the English word.] In the case of cinema, there is a filmic form; in the case of literature, a literary form. The content always remains untouched. That is wrong. When Nadja recites the poem by Heinrich Heine she says, “It’s not about the representation of love, but rather about the quake of representation itself.” This is to say that the text itself trembles. Cinema itself must tremble. The content changes the form, the form changes the content. I am a literary scholar by training, and there are people who make distinctions between directors who are painters, who are musicians, and then those who are writers. The writers always have a bad reputation. It’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who went to Hollywood to write screenplays but wasn’t very good at it. There is a famous scene in The Last Tycoon (1976). It’s about a producer, played by Robert De Niro, and a novelist, who is supposed to write a screenplay. But De Niro, the tycoon, doesn’t like what he comes up with, so he invites the writer over to explain something: “There is a room. There is a large desk, a leather chair, a big window with a curtain, a fireplace. A woman enters the room. She walks over to the desk. She looks for a key. She opens the drawer. She takes out a few things: a wallet, a photograph, and a nickel. At that moment she hears sounds at the door. She throws the wallet and the photograph back into the drawer, slams it shut, and runs behind the curtain. Hides. A man enters, looks around, walks over to the fireplace, leaves. The woman follows.” That’s the scene. Very exciting. The writer, who has had to listen to De Niro’s little speech, says, “What about the nickel?” He responds, “That pays for your ticket to the movies.” I liked that. Writers are treated terribly in cinema, but they also consider themselves, snobbishly, to be above it all. But in actuality, cinema needs literature. Just not as an adaptation. Hitchcock said it’s only possible to adapt bad books, because you need the plot. Or you choose not to adapt, but rather to film a memory, a feeling. You film the experience of reading, not the plot.  

NOTEBOOK: As viewers, we experience the story of Afire mostly through Leon’s perspective. At the end, the voice of Matthias Brandt, who is Leon’s editor in the movie, reads out loud the book that has finally been completed. When the voice-over sets in, a question comes to mind: is what has just unfolded on screen, what we have experienced, perhaps Leon’s story, the book he has written?  

PETZOLD: That is indeed the case. When we made Transit four years ago, we had a voice-over for the first time in my life. Back then it was also Matthias Brandt, the barkeeper, and we received some criticism from people who are invested in the purity of cinema, who think that a voice-over isn’t cinema. But in my eyes, cinema is always the present. It vanishes in an instant, but what I am seeing is the present. When a film shows something that happened 200 years ago, it still shows the present of this very moment. When you add music, this present becomes a feeling. But when you add a voice-over, a narrator, the present becomes, at the very same time, the past. That can be beautiful. I’m thinking of instances when I myself have been incredibly happy, very banal moments, like when we were in the middle of our preparations for Transit and I received a ticket for a soccer game between Nice and Olympique Marseille. I really wanted to see them play, because the team from Nice was run by my favorite coach, Lucien Favre, an intellectual of soccer. As I was standing at the edge of the soccer field, Favre was suddenly right next to me. I was so surprised and happy that an inner voice told me: “He met the coach of his life.” That was my way of coping with the situation. Voice-over unites present and past at the very same moment.

NOTEBOOK: You implied that there is great happiness in moments when life becomes literature. But I feel like there is also sadness, as in the scene when Nadja and Leon are at the hospital, standing in front of two burnt corpses, and Leon can’t help but narrate the moment to himself and think of the entangled dead bodies from Pompeii. That’s how he keeps himself from grieving, and it was painful for me to see.

PETZOLD: Yes, what I meant to say is that my inner voice-over is also a shield against feeling. At the hospital, Leon is afraid of being overwhelmed, he is afraid of a loss of control, which can bring love but also tears. And so he assumes control by making his association to Pompeii. He makes himself cold.

Afire (2023).

NOTEBOOK: I think something a lot of writers wrestle with is the feeling that literature can’t ever keep up with life because it always happens after the fact. At the same time, the transformation of a situation into literature is also a way of grasping it and making it last beyond itself. For Leon, turning this moment of grief into a story might allow him to experience it more fully, while at the same time he is missing what is actually happening.

PETZOLD: Exactly. He also wants to miss it, because it scares him. The entire time he has used literature to shield himself from the world. His novel is terrible too. Not in the sense that anyone would say it’s poorly written, rather in its position toward the world, its narrative stance: me, the lonely traveler, the others have kids, Berlin townhouses. Terrible, right? That’s the position of someone like Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre.

NOTEBOOK: That’s exactly who we were thinking of.

PETZOLD: This kind of literature doesn’t give itself over to the world. Leon learns to write about the pain of someone who did give himself over to the world. That's how he becomes a writer.

NOTEBOOK: So how does Romantic literature, which also appears in the film, differ from Leon’s planned book Club Sandwich? How do writers like Heine allow for and express a different experience? I’m asking because after Undine this film is supposed to be the second part of a trilogy based on German Romanticism.  

PETZOLD: I need to say a few words about this trilogy idea. When we were shooting Undine, we said that the next film would be about fire. Back then, I had a very different story in mind. It was supposed to be about a dad who worked as a fireman, but I put that project aside when I was sick with COVID. At that time, I was watching a lot of films by Eric Rohmer and thought: Germany has summers, but we don’t have the summer movie genre. The French, they have summer films. They have vacations that are two months long and during that time receive an éducation sentimentale. I’m very annoyed that we, the Germans, are regressive during the summer, while the others get to know and hurt each other. I was contemplating that and then read a story by Chekhov. It’s also about two losers who spend their summer on a big estate. At the estate next door, there are two young women who are utterly superior to them. Only after they have ruined everything do the two men realize that those were the women of their lives and that they will never get to see them again. They screwed up. All of that happens on ten pages. A report of what one has lost.

NOTEBOOK: When I think of Rohmer’s summer films, there is a particular scene I always come back to. In La collectionneuse (1967), one of the characters is observing an anemone in the ocean, moving gently with the waves, and says they would like to be like that anemone, not doing anything for the entire summer. And that for me is a very poignant image for diving into the feeling of summer, of vacation, of doing nothing. In Afire, that feeling, at least for Leon, never arrives. He’s away from the city, but still affected by the pressure to work and produce.  

PETZOLD: I would say that the main character does not have access to this feeling you are describing. A phrase Leon uses like “work does not allow it” is just short of splitting off completely from the others. But they are all young adults, and what young people do is often posing. Me too, I can still be a poser. The novel that Leon is working on, his second after a big success, is equivalent to my second film, Cuba Libre (1996). Back then, I was posing. I pretended to be a great director who knows it all, who can draw on all the films before him, who impresses everyone. But none of that was true. Leon, he pretends to be a writer when the others are watching. When they are gone, he is bouncing tennis balls off the wall, paces up and down. That's why his labor in this film is merely self-presentation, it’s staged. The labor of the young woman on the other hand is real. She does the dishes, she cooks, she cycles to the grocery store. She sells ice cream, gets up early every morning. And she still has fun in life. Felix and Devid, they go up on the roof to fix it. What Leon is lacking is the kind of work that he can get lost in. He always remains overly aware of himself, observes himself. The problem is similar for actors. You can immediately stop shooting if they begin to observe themselves. We are familiar with this problem also in our own lives: we walk into a club, can’t give in to the music and instead observe ourselves. Then you end up being tense, the biggest idiot in the world. Leon can't really escape that position. Nadja, she wants to save him, offers him a thousand ways to get out of the situation. She teases him, laughs with him, she cracks him open. That’s why the love in this film is a form of work.

Cuba Libre (1996).

NOTEBOOK: Throughout the film, Leon keeps falling asleep without intending to. When Undine was released, you spoke a lot about a state of slumber that is also a state of creativity. I’m interested in Leon’s sleeplessness during the blue nights of Afire, and the sudden episodes of sleep throughout the day. He is overcome by tiredness, maybe in a similar way to how he is overcome by the image of the bodies at Pompeii and the impulse to write in a moment that is actually very unfitting. Does this last film show a different kind of sleep, and thus also a different kind of creativity? One that happens at the wrong time maybe?

PETZOLD: He definitely has a very unhealthy rhythm, but tries to make it seem like he is working hard the entire time. The first shot of the film shows him sleeping in the car and listening to music. Then he's woken up when the car breaks down, and afterwards keeps falling back asleep in different situations: by the sea, on the bench. At the core he is a dreamer who can’t admit to himself that he should be dreaming. And thus he simulates an almost Protestant work ethic: “I have to work now.” The book ends up with the cramped tension of Protestantism. He must learn to dream his dreams in writing. To truly see the world, you must move through it in a somnambulant state. Cinema itself is a somnambulant affair. The cinemagoer is himself a somnambulant, because he is physically present but also absent. He doesn't have a body.

NOTEBOOK: Are there economic conditions that prevent Leon from giving himself over to a somnambulant state?

PETZOLD: I experienced this myself. My first film was successful and therefore I immediately received money for my second film, which I staged exactly like Leon writes his second novel. The demise begins, if, as such a young man, you write a successful book and go on reading tours and read reviews and critiques. You get taken out and receive a €50,000 advance for a new book. “I have to work.” And if such a young man ends up in such a predicament, who is going to save him? The editor doesn’t dare say, “Throw the whole book away.” He wants the writer to say it himself. That’s why he reads the book aloud. He reads it to him and hopes that he will say, “Hey, come on, throw it out. Begin anew.” He knows that if he were to say that to him, his entire career would implode. He has to recognize it himself. Something similar once happened to me. “Cuba Libre,” “Club Sandwich”—those are similar formulations. One is a drink, the other a dish; you can order both at a hotel bar.  

NOTEBOOK: Before we had actually seen Afire, we wanted to focus this conversation on GDR history and the legacy of vacation resorts on the Baltic seaboard. However, what is more interesting to us now is that the GDR only subtly appears in the background, for example, when Leon and Felix crack jokes about the names “Devid” and “Maik.” If the film was primarily filmed in Brandenburg, why did you choose to set it on the coast of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern? After all, places are always of central importance to your films.  

PETZOLD: I would have gladly shot the entire film at the Baltic if it weren’t for the ugliness of the vacation homes. I would have had to completely clear them out, paint everything new. Then I decided it would be much cheaper to pick a forester’s house in Brandenburg. The ocean is behind the hole in the hedge. No problem. We filmed for four weeks in the forester’s house and from there went back and forth to the seaside. After two weeks, when we returned to the house, the actors and actresses actually believed that the sea was right there. They almost packed bathing suits. GDR history, the wall, the fall of the wall was 34 years ago. It’s always becoming more… Here in Berlin, we are surrounded by the GDR and its traces and that will be forever so. But the people in this film were born after the fall of the wall, they laugh about it. It doesn’t make a difference for them anymore. They laugh about Maik and Devid. I must add, I like to film on the Baltic Sea for the very reason that the Baltic is not a very beautiful body of water. It is an ocean that one cannot depend on. One can always depend on the North Sea, there is always ebb and flow. The Mediterranean is always blue. You can always make Contempt (1963) from Godard. Mediterranean, no problem. But the Baltic looks different every three hours. I like that.

NOTEBOOK: There are two very important moments of recitation in Afire, which are both told at the patio table during meals. In the first, Devid shares an invented anecdote about encountering, in his words, an Arab, who threatens to “spray him gay.” In the other important moment, Nadja recounts “The Asra,” a poem by Heinrich Heine. Both scenes are key narrative turns: after the first, Devid and Felix fall in love and the second is when Leon first realizes Nadja, who he thought was just a seasonal worker, actually studies literature. But both scenes locate transgressive love and sexuality in the East. Why did you incorporate Orientalism into these pivotal moments?

PETZOLD: I don’t really know, it’s only occurring to me now. It could be that at this hideous Baltic Sea one also...what comes to mind is Salammbô (1862) by Gustave Flaubert, belly dancing, homosexuality, the Yemeni royal court, love. The Orient is a place of longing, perhaps especially at the Baltic Sea. But that just happened.  

Afire (2023).

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to turn toward the role of climate change in the film. The forest fire poses a concrete threat throughout the film, which the characters in the house largely ignore and think they can just sit it out. Similarly, climate change is already an actuality, but for those who aren’t already immediately affected, it can be easy to forget. The threat never fully becomes reality, even though it is actually there.

PETZOLD: But isn’t that often the case? I am a Berliner. There were fires in Grunewald over the summer, and in Treuenbrietzen, places not far away at all from where we filmed. All of those places are very close. We even heard the sirens, you could smell the fire in the air, and an hour later one had already forgotten about it. Everything is okay. In the suppression of environmental catastrophes, our climate catastrophes, we are champions, absolute world champions. That is why I actually find it interesting that the youth do stand on the roof at night and look at the helicopter, which carries water, while one says, “We are lucky, it’s not looking good in Malow.” When the ash-rain does arrive, you see the horror in their eyes: that's ash. It edges ever closer. The Americans know much better how to report catastrophes than we do. I don’t know why. Perhaps because of their tornadoes and other environmental hazards. But I didn’t want to put it in the foreground, to make an eco-thriller. We have had brutal forest fires in Brandenburg in the last three years. We have forest fires in Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. I even traveled to an enormous area of burned forest in Turkey for the film’s sake. The most terrifying thing is a dead forest. In these old paintings by Max Ernst, which are linked to World War I, one sees how all of nature is eternally destroyed in the trenches. One also sees how everything is burned, everything. Nothing will ever grow there again, never. This area in Turkey, you see, will never heal. You go through an enormous forest, where there is nothing, not a sound. That is the most terrifying thing. There are no sounds. There are no insects, no birds, no wind to rustle the leaves. This is not a film with a call for donations attached to it. “Please give money to our dying forests.” This is simply ordinary and it should be like that in the film.  

NOTEBOOK: When does something actually become reality? When can it be experienced as reality? These questions accompany the film for me. This predicament arises frequently while writing, which is often a belated way of grappling with a situation. This is similar to the scene in the film, which, by the way, recalls a typical episode of Tatort, when Leon and Nadja are at the pathology department and see the two burnt corpses on the table. The fact that Felix and Devid perished in the fire becomes a reality for Leon at this moment, but at the same time his literary excursus to Pompeii also turns it into a story.  

PETZOLD: I believe he experiences unimaginable shame when he sees the love between the two. Leon had treated his friend, Felix, and the lifeguard poorly. He had tried to humiliate Devid in front of all the others because he is actually a better storyteller than himself. He also denied Felix his friendship. “Are you coming swimming?” “I have to work.” These two men, whom he hurt, loved each other. Even worse, their love was stronger than the fear and pain in the very moment of their death. Nadja also loved and now she looks at Leon, giving him the last chance to go through the door to love. He’s ashamed. He’s ashamed of himself, that he is incapable of loving, that he is so inhibited. When he returns home, nobody is there anymore. He knows then that he can write a book out of his shame. I find it beautiful when he says, “Sometimes, in moments of loneliness, he will think about this [moment at the hospital].” Perhaps someone will think about him, how lonely he is! He is unbelievably lonely. This loneliness is his éducation sentimental.

NOTEBOOK: Shame is the perfect word. It’s also a much-discussed emotion in literature and literary studies.  

PETZOLD: Yes, that’s right. Shame is one of the feelings that sets history in motion, to be ashamed of oneself, but also for another [Fremdscham]. The shame of having parents who don’t have money, that’s already enough. I told Thomas, the actor, that he went to boarding school on a scholarship because his parents are poor. Felix, whose parents have money, a vacation home, a Mercedes, and so on, is at ease. A friend of a friend sleeps there, no problem. But Leon is someone—even though this is not made obvious in the film—who comes from the working class. That’s why he is hurt. He is ashamed of his origins, and out of this feeling he develops a work ethic to distinguish himself and to develop a unique selling point.

NOTEBOOK: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote a famous essay about shame, which describes it as an affect that encloses one within oneself, but also throws one into the social field, because one has the feeling of being observed and at the same time knows that one is unable to connect with others. Shame is a double motion in that way, into and out of the social world.

PETZOLD: Wonderfully put. I know that essay. Shame entails ambiguity: shame isolates you, you feel ashamed, you lock yourself in the toilet, there is that kind of bodily shame. But I also feel shame, for example, when Germany plays football. This shame sensitizes me to the world. Why am I ashamed? I’m ashamed sometimes of particular politicians. I’m ashamed sometimes of lousy films.

NOTEBOOK: I felt ashamed when Devid told his story.

PETZOLD: Someone told me this story, I didn’t just invent it. There is a very similar story in Hidden (2005) by Michael Haneke. Also a story that suddenly gives rise to an action. What is most interesting is how a lifeguard tells a story to a literary critic, an author, and a photographer, completely shamelessly. And they say that it’s good, affirming him to keep going. Nadja already knows the end, but she still pays attention. It’s similar with music. Sometimes one can listen to awful music and still dance.  

NOTEBOOK: So: shame and shamelessness.

PETZOLD: Exactly, that’s summer. There is nothing more boring than being at a cafe in the summer and in the back there is some idiot with a Moleskine jotting things down. That’s horrifying. Or people who go to parties and stand in the corner, who don’t join in.

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