German director Christian Petzold’s tenth feature film, Afire—which premiered this year in Berlin and has now arrived in American theaters—dramatizes with understated intelligence the kind of psycho-social tension that, in the age of pandemics and climate emergency, we seem doomed to face, forget, and face again. In some ways a minor work—it has a short running-time, a cast you can count on one hand, and an almost too-simple plotline—Afire nevertheless marks a new level of ambition and achievement for Petzold. It is a chamber piece centered on youthful preoccupations against a backdrop of profound but easily ignored risks, a critique of bourgeois self-obsession that remains grounded in personal predicaments. Its simplicity and even-handedness are the result of decades of steadily increasing technical mastery and thematic clarity.
Born in the early 1960s in northwest Germany, Petzold rose to prominence as a member of the Berlin School, an unofficial movement of filmmakers exploring the emotional fallout of German reunification. What unifies the Berlin School is not so much an explicit aesthetic or political program as a careful and self-possessed sensibility. Slowly, over the course of the past twenty years, Petzold has emerged as the most internationally recognizable of this group. Early films such as 2000’s The State I Am In and 2007’s Yella demonstrate the poise of his narrative approach, taking on historical forces—the long shadow of revolutionary violence, the corruption intrinsic to capitalism—by allowing their textures and nuances to emerge in the lives of the people subject to them.
Petzold’s reputation grew rapidly after 2012’s Barbara and 2014’s Phoenix, both starring Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Barbara, set in 1980 in East Germany, tells the story of a doctor (Hoss) who is subjected to invasive surveillance by the Stasi as she plots her defection to the West. Meanwhile, she finds herself enmeshed in the fragmented society of the village to which she has recently been re-assigned by the authorities. As she cares for a pregnant girl from the nearby labor camp, she develops a tense relationship with Reiser (Zehrfeld), the chief physician whose murky past led to his own harassment by the state, for which he now works as a reluctant informant.
Phoenix takes place in the bombed-out remains of postwar Berlin. Nelly (Hoss), recently liberated from a concentration camp and recovering from facial reconstructive surgery after a bullet wound, returns in search of her husband, Johnny (Zehrfeld), despite her last surviving friend insisting that Johnny was the one who sold her out to the Nazis. Nelly finds Johnny working at a nightclub, but he doesn’t recognize her, instead believing her to be a stranger who bears a striking resemblance to the wife assumed to be dead. He instructs Nelly on how to resemble his wife even more, in hopes of obtaining the substantial inheritance she is set to receive from her family, who did not survive the camps.
Phoenix is in some ways the culmination of Petzold’s six-film run with Hoss, an actor of apparently unlimited interpretative capacity and emotional range, with an on-screen presence equal to the glamorous femmes fatales of Old Hollywood. (Hoss is often compared to Isabelle Huppert; another apt comparison might be to Hoss’s recent costar in Tár, Cate Blanchett.) In both Barbara and Phoenix, Hoss portrays a woman on the brink, crossing inner and outer boundaries only to find every option exhausted before she gets to it. The glimmer of hope with which she bears up under impossible conditions is not so much for redemption as for survival. In both films, the hulking Zehrfeld is the perfect foil to Hoss’s characters. He simultaneously exudes power, defeat, tenderness, and even some of the trickster’s malice; he is an utterly compromised survivor beyond the end of history—Stanley Kowalski as written by W. G. Sebald. In Barbara, Hoss’s character ultimately finds guarded repose in Zehrfeld’s tainted companionship; in Phoenix, freedom in rejecting it. These choices are mirror images of one another, opposite yet equal responses to the realization that, not only do we remain haunted by history, we may ourselves be its ghosts.
Thematic complementarity aside, there is a certain formal development between the two films. Barbara looks and feels very much like a Berlin School film: competent, stark, engrossing, if a little slow. In Phoenix, Petzold embraces elements of a more popular style, incorporating the visual repertoire and plot points of classic noir into his cerebral exploration of history and betrayal.