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FilmWatch Weekly: Christian Petzold’s ‘Afire’ and a landmark of silent gay cinema on Blu-ray

In the German writer-director's latest film, four characters find themselves together in a vacation house as a forest fire rages nearby.

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Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, and Enno Trebs in Christian Petzold’s film “Afire”

If the state of international film distribution in this country were something other than abysmal, German writer-director Christian Petzold would be a household name, at least in art houses. The latest evidence in support of that proposition is the deceptively simple Afire, which conjures subtly textured takes on art, love, and the fate of the planet out of four characters’ interactions over a few days in a vacation house near the Baltic Sea.

Leon (Thomas Schubert), a young writer struggling to complete his second novel, and Felix (Langston Uibel), a photographer putting together his art school portfolio, arrive at the cabin owned by Felix’s mother only after their car breaks down, forcing them to hoof it the last couple kilometers. They’ve come to focus on their respective projects, but when they arrive, they learn that they’ll be sharing the place with Nadja (Paula Beer), who’s both relaxed and pretty enough to serve as a genuine distraction for Leon. The dyspeptic, doughy writer is as annoyed by Nadja’s loud, late-night sex with local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) as he is beguiled by her easy movement through the world.

Behind and amid the social comedy of this quartet’s interactions, the ominous specter of nearby forest fires looms like an ecological Chekhov’s gun. In the film’s first minutes, Leon hears the rumbling propeller of a firefighting plane, and occasional reminders of the potential peril pop up every so often. If this were a Hollywood film about a natural disaster closing in on a group of four on an idyllic getaway, the histrionics would likely have come early on. But Petzold is much more interested in our failure to recognize reality, our inability to get out of our own heads, than he is in how we might react once reality gives us no choice.

His vehicle for this is Leon, our main character and, frankly, the worst of the bunch. The very picture of a self-loathing narcissist, he resents and envies the way others are able to make social connection, to interact with others without judging them, and to just not be so uptight all the time. This siloed perspective not only seems to affect the quality of his writing, but it also prevents him from having the sorts of lived experiences that might improve his art. Schubert plays Leon with just enough recognition of his own emotional constipation to prompt pity rather than disgust.

In a similar way, Beer (who starred in Petzold’s previous film, Undine) has the chops to provide Nadja with a lopsided charm and evident smarts to elevate the character above unobtainable-dream-girl status. Even if Leon’s tunnel vision keeps him from appreciating Nadja’s depth (or even realizing it exists), it’s clear to us that she’s even more out of his league than he imagines.

When Leon’s editor (Matthias Brandt) pays a visit to discuss his manuscript, he finds himself in the middle of both an emotional and literal conflagration. The wind shifts, the fire draws near, and Leon is faced with the necessity of action. Whether he can manage to pull his own head out of you-know-where in time to take it is no sure thing.

For most of his career, Petzold has been known for intelligent, adult melodramas that sometimes carry a whiff of the mythic. (He’d be a great topic for a retrospective, if any ambitious film programmers are reading.) Many of his most acclaimed films have starred Nina Hoss, most recently seen as Lydia Tár’s wife in Tár. Afire is the first time he’s made anything that could remotely be called a comedy, and it’s a successful foray into new territory for the 62-year-old auteur. His lead character may be blinkered and bitter, but the filmmaker seems to just be hitting his stride. (Opens Friday, July 28, at Living Room Theaters in Portland and Metro Cinema in Eugene.)

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The pioneering Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer is a mainstay on film studies’ curricula thanks to his never-equaled silent The Passion of Joan of Arc as well as his early horror film Vampyr and the trio of austere dramas he made between 1943 and 1964. As the study of film history evolves to include depictions of marginalized communities, Dreyer merits further appreciation as the creative force behind one of the earliest films to feature gay relationships, 1924’s Michael, which has been recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

Based on a 1902 novel, it centers on the relationship between the older, successful painter Zoret and his younger muse/model/lover Michael. As Michael’s success begins to outshine Zoret’s, and a duplicitous princess insinuates herself into their lives, the elder artist spirals toward heartbreak. The ethereally handsome Michael is played by Walter Slezak, almost unrecognizable as the later star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. (He’s also surely the only actor to appear in a Dreyer film and an episode of the 1960s Batman TV series, as the Clock King.) Other notable contributors include Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s wife and collaborator, who co-wrote the screenplay, and cinematographer Karl Freund, who went on to a successful Hollywood career in the 1930s and directed Boris Karloff in The Mummy.

In its all-but-explicit recognition of Zoret and Michael’s same-sex relationship, Michael is a landmark of early gay cinema. That historical context, as well as perceptive insight into the movie’s role in Dreyer’s filmography, is provided in an excellent Blu-ray audio commentary track by Amanda Doxtater and Maxine Savage. Doxtater is the chair of Swedish Studies at the University of Washington, where Savage is a doctoral candidate, and their observations and conversations regarding Michael are as insightful as they are entertaining. (Kino Lorber, $29.95. Also available to stream via Kanopy and Kino Now, and to rent on DVD at Movie Madness, but without that lovely commentary track.)

ALSO THIS WEEK:

FRIDAY: Female Prisoner Scorpion #701 (Clinton); Fight Club (Hollywood Theatre, through Sunday and also Thursday); Isle of Dogs (Eugene Art House, through Thursday); The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Kiggins); Minari (5th Avenue Cinemas, through Sunday); the documentary Squaring the Circle profiles the iconic album design studio Hipgnosis (Kiggins)

SATURDAY: A Letter to Momo (Clinton); Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (Hollywood, also Sunday); Rosemary’s Baby (Cinema 21)

SUNDAY: Cape Fear (Living Room Theaters); Heathers (Eugene Art House); To Kill a Mockingbird (Cinema 21)

MONDAY: The Tale of Zatoichi (Clinton)

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TUESDAY: The 1965 Japanese sci-fi mash-up The Atomic Rulers (Darkside Cinema in Corvallis); Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (Clinton)

WEDNESDAY: Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (Hollywood, also Thursday)

THURSDAY: Funeral Parade of Roses (Clinton)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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