You can’t hold someone like Christian Petzold accountable for self-indulgence. Not when he might just be the one he’s so exasperatedly critical of through his barely cryptic, nearly autobiographical critique of a self-absorbed, miserable writer. The overlooked yet strikingly mesmerizing waves of the Baltic Sea are as important to this insufferable individual as the people he’s begrudgingly gracing with his attention in Afire. Is Leon’s character Petzold’s nonchalant, almost suicidally despondent actualization of an overwhelming sense of self-loathing? I’m afraid that’s a state of contemplation I won’t be allowed to accompany you in. But let’s take a stroll through the coarse, sandy terrain of Leon’s mind and see how much of him we can figure out.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Film?
Had it been for leisure, Leon and Felix would’ve perhaps opted for a retreat in a place that is not dangerously close to a raging forest fire. But even though it’s supposedly for work, with a broken car standing useless on the side of the road, the two friends can and do find the time to dabble in some sexual tension-ridden roughhousing. Their stay at Felix’s father’s house near the Baltic shore is hardly as pleasant, though. And while the easygoing Felix can make do with the unforeseen living situation that includes the beautiful Nadja, Leon’s not too fond of the situation he’s found himself in. He’s a writer, you see. One who is struggling as hard trying to come up with the finishing touches of his manuscript as he is exasperated by the recurrent moans easily piercing through the thin walls No work gets done, after all. And Felix’s repeated attempts at getting him to have a good time or at least do something productive fail almost as often as we see Leon’s dismissive scowl bringing down the energy.
Is Leon A Narcissist?
It goes without saying that Leon’s not the best company to keep. But why’s that? Is he a bad man? It really depends on who you ask. The writer of the hilariously titled “Club Sandwich” is quite insufferable. So aggravatingly proud of the intellect that we or the people around him hardly ever get to actually get a whiff of, Leon’s default mode is belittling anyone he doesn’t see eye to eye with. There’s a ridiculously placed, almost self-deprecating jab that Petzold entertains through the narcissistic writer’s criticism of water being the theme that Felix’s art school portfolio is supposed to be about. If you remember, Petzold’s “Undine” has the element of water as its pervasive theme. For someone in a profession that demands thorough observation and understanding of human nature, Leon couldn’t find being around people, even at an awkward distance, more tedious. So much so that he dozes off at a bustling beach as Felix goes up to befriend Nadja’s lover, Devid. And even that sweet man with a fairly irritating dinner table anecdote fails to sidestep Leon’s effervescent hostility as he denigrates his career choice.
What’s Leon Insecure About?
About halfway into Afire, you might find yourself wondering if the film’s quarrel is with Leon or the universal understanding of where art comes from. And can true art really be born out of someone like Leon? Even for someone we get but only a fleeting yet undeniably naked glimpse of, Leon doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who has many life experiences, even ephemeral, to speak of. And how could he indulge in them when he’s so evidently ashamed of his failures that he can’t stand being around those he considers to be airheads? So devastatingly aware of the possible rejection, he practically chooses to shun the romance brewing between Felix and Devid. And that essentially robs us of witnessing the same, as we’re watching the other characters mainly through Leon’s narcissistic lens. Flaming woods coloring the sunset skies a touch more orange generally evade his eyes. Eyes that are so blind to anything that either actively soothes or inadvertently triggers his insecurities about his own shortcomings Projecting his failures onto the friendly beach ice cream vendor Nadja as a writer terrified of being schooled by his publisher, something like this is so organic for Leon that it’s probably the first sincere conversation he has with his housemate.
Will Leon Change For The Better?
I’d say that the role of the audience in Afire is that of an onlooker at a distance. Leon’s eyes are our eyes. And he already filters out things of such great significance that what we as an audience perceive is a fraction of a fraction, if you think about it. It’s not that the tension between Leon and Nadja falls on your lap out of nowhere. You’ve seen it coming as much as Leon’s self-destructive denial has allowed you to. In longing gazes through the window masked by his resting peeved face to a work-bound Nadja, we’ve seen Leon fighting himself. Even his petty jealousies, lashing out at a sinless Devid, speak of his growing spark for her. And this might sound strange, but bear with me here: even the fact that Leon compares Nadja to a cleaning lady, a profession he evidently abhors, as he shoots his reason behind not wanting her criticism, is a covert tell of love by a bully. The same person whose opinion of his manuscript is something he claims can only do harm is someone he secretly, longingly, and hesitantly keeps an eye on, lest he catch the sight of her frown. And when the reaction is evidently bad, a reaction further approved by his editor Helmut’s disapproval of his use of vapid sexual innuendos and woke-washed misogyny, the movements in Leon shift as though he’s finally not shutting himself off. Embracing the feeling of being an unworthy failure is when he’s the most alive, as his face finally shows signs of life when Helmut turns his focus on the hidden spring of literary knowledge, our research scholar Nadja.
Love, though, overwhelms nearly everything surrounding the two, as they vow to perish like the young slave in “The Azra”. Exploring the quake of representation in Heinrich Heine is something he doesn’t mind having to see his editor admiring. But quiet rage is all his face hums of as the portfolio he didn’t approve of catches Helmut’s appreciative, encouraging eyes. Of course, it isn’t necessarily fair or realistic that a jarring cycle of tragedy traps him within itself to force his eye open. He didn’t see it coming when the flakes of ash turned their eyes toward the fury of the forest fire catching on. He didn’t know Helmut had cancer, and nobody was out to get him or badmouth him to his editor. He certainly wasn’t aware that a crying, scalded boar piglet would get a bigger reaction out of him than the charred corpses of Felix and Devid. All he could internalize through his narrow understanding of life and the world, sadly, is something you’d expect from a pseudo-intellectual with only academic references to communicate his feelings with. Felix and Devid became the Lovers of Pompeii in his first literary piece based on an actual life experience. But I doubt that the ending of Afire reserves much hope for our narcissistic writer’s complete redemption. He’s still a man hankering for validation, even at the cost of turning a broad tragedy into his personal anecdote. At least now, even though he’s pushed it away, he can now speak of love with a chest full of oblivious pride.