by Lena Baumann and Luise Mörke
(translated from the German)
Christian Petzold’s most recent feature Afire is set in a summer home near the Baltic Sea. The film follows Leon, a young writer with a successful debut under his belt, as he struggles with the completion of a second manuscript. Filled with discontent and unable to give into the lightness of summer, he often lashes out at those around him: Leon’s friend Felix, an aspiring photographer; Nadja, a literary scholar with a summer gig at an ice cream stand; and Devid, who works as a lifeguard. As Leon’s lostness exacerbates and the relationships within the group intensify, news of nearby wildfires enter this secluded world and dusky skies are set aglow by the eerie threat of destruction.
Writing, friendship, impasse, apocalypse—these are four themes that run through Afire. In August 2023, we set out to give a different form to this constellation, writing one or two emails a week that would circulate and circumvent the film. What follows is the result of this experiment.
2023 is my year of the fan, Baltic Sea breeze generated by electricity. I’m sitting in my room under the roof, letting the wind blow. It's hot here. I have some thoughts on the apocalypse.
In Afire, the end (Endzeit, apocalypse, fire) first lurks on the horizon, with pretty flakes as harbingers. Its actual appearance, however, turns out to not be an end after all. Leon keeps going, even finishes the book he has been struggling with. Is this a glimmer of hope, an antidote to the apocalyptic atmosphere? Or a confirmation that the many apocalypses this world has already lived through have always been an end for some and a beginning for others? Skyscrapers are built where a whole world was just wiped out. Sometimes continuity is the greatest brutality.
Is there a better way to keep going? That may be something like a generational question.
Cinema loves death, morbidity. On screen, the living retreat from the world while the dead re-enter it. The internet, related but different, loves disarray and collapse, something I’m inclined to ascribe to an entropic overload of the nervous system, the sensory deluge of scrolling. Two rhetorical commonplaces seem fitting: break the internet and death of cinema. The online world collapses under its own weight, cinema succumbs slowly. Yesterday I was briefly tempted to consider Afire as a metaphor for the frequently postulated end of film; then discarded the idea as too self-referential.
Your friend for the end of the world,
It's afternoon and, as is often the case at this time, I feel like crying. Even in high school I got anxious after 2 pm, dreaded the cruelty of 3 pm, everything after became gradually more bearable. It’s the fear of the end—nothing is fresh and unwritten anymore, everything begins to decay. The foreboding is painful, not the end itself. The end is clear and pure.
eon is writing his new novel, but perhaps only succeeds because he is confronted with a story that can be told clearly and purely: it has a beginning, middle, and end. I think it's very difficult to tell a story about the parallelism of life and death, but the film succeeds.
In Afire, the doomsday mood is ubiquitous and yet everyone is alive in it (for the most part, it’s a humorous film). But Leon's novel does not seem hopeful to me, and neither does he. Perhaps because I don't feel like he has understood anything about himself or his life, except that he has gotten away once more. That’s not enough to make him seem alive to me.
Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to your question about how to go on in better ways. Currently I’m reading Nom by Constance Debré. Her point is to write against "la vie lamentable." No one should have to live "une vie lamentable." Leon's existence seems so pathetic, lamentable, to me, and I almost think he has no right to that, as a man of his particular class and social standing. Who in our generation is responsible for what?
I'm glad you want to be my friend for the end of the world. Then it can't be that bad.
"Parallelism of life and death," you write. I make of it: transience is felt most when thinking back on moments of utmost aliveness. Sounds like a physics law. Quod erat demonstrandum!
Club Sandwich, Leon's rejected manuscript, fails because it’s premised on a performance of distance. Playing the cool observer, he ends up degrading everything and everyone into an object of contemplation and condescension. His narrative voice withdraws from the world instead of engaging with it—the very same attitude is also responsible for his miserable summer. At the beginning of this project, we wanted to take Afire as an occasion to think about the afterlife of German pop literature from the 1990s. Here, the reference fits: I'm thinking, for example, of Christian Kracht's Barbour jacket in Faserland; brand names and consumer goods that become signifiers of identity. Back then, Kracht et al. were wrestling with the ruthless objectification of the world (American Psycho as a constant reference and absolutization of this principle: Patrick Bateman even chops up the "hardbody" girls, utterly reduces them to objecthood, but also chops up himself—at least a little bit—in the process).
Petzold has often said that he is concerned with moments in which we become human, and I believe that he would contrast this "human" to an object. Becoming human unfolds in moments of the greatest possible vitality and transience. In summer!
Afire, I conclude, is a humanistic response to the Anthropocene. Sounds perhaps simpler than it is.
Hugs and kisses,
I had to postpone my answer again and again because of various travel incidents and feeling stuck. Let's see if now, after a restless night in the hostel bed, a good thought will come to me.
Your final note on becoming human resonates with a feeling I have had for some time now. Why do I, amid all these crises, still have the urge to laugh and live right now? Nadja, it seems to me, has understood this. We need to talk about her.
Like you, I see Leon's sleazy manuscript in the tradition of Faserland, but he doesn't succeed in creating a narrator, who isn’t merely telling a story but whose mode of narration is reflected within the story itself. There is no reverberation. Of course, it’s a taboo to equate author and narrator, but in this case I can’t help it. Leon's preconceived notions of the world permanently cloud his view. Nadja remains a silly ice cream vendor while he keeps “playing author” (I got that from an interview with Petzold). All he can think about with regard to the young mother in his story is her sexual availability. That's why his characters never develop a life of their own and why the narrator remains completely uninteresting: the condescending judgments he will make are clear from the very start. That’s what makes his novel static, expectable.
Every author turns his characters into objects. Leon, however, develops a narrator who degrades everything and everyone, as you say. Objectification becomes a problem when the other is no longer allowed to unfold in a process of becoming but is mobilized in the service of an idea.
You’ll have to elaborate on how Afire is a humanist response to the Anthropocene. Can you do that in an email? Because it doesn't sound simple to me at all!
Kisses from Tokyo. I wish we could walk around the city together and talk about all this!
So now you're in Japan. Speaking of Kracht: The Dead, which replaces the wishy-washy-roadtripping of Faserland with early 20th century violence mediated by film images, is also set there. I actually wanted to send you film stills of the hara-kiri scene he describes at the beginning of the novel in an earlier email, but couldn't find anything. Maybe no actual movie exists? And maybe you're quite happy that I didn't send those stills after all.
First things first. You ask what I mean by "humanist response to the Anthropocene." I find that the critique of the Anthropocene often comes with a posthumanist twist: humans have been the self-proclaimed center of the world since fourteen-hundred-something, polluting, destroying, degrading everything around them, so now let’s think from the perspective of a mushroom! Afire, by contrast, searches for an antidote to this condition within the destroyers themselves. Becoming human (not becoming mushroom) is the answer.
I agree with you that we absolutely have to talk about Nadja. Leon is stuck in a vicious circle that is prone to be elevated artistically: he despises the world and hence also despises himself (because he is, of course, part of that very world). At the same time, however, he also thinks he's the greatest, positioning himself as the omniscient observer who sees through everything. There it is, the whole myth of the tortured artist type, debunked! Nadja doesn't play along with this at all, and I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that her life experience oscillates more between being subject and object. When she hangs up the laundry in her summer dress the camera turns her into an object of desire; we're supposed to think she's beautiful! Chris Kraus—I haven't thought about her in a long time—turns objectification into a moment of liberation from the self, and consequently from the vicious circle described above. Perhaps? More a suggestion than a thesis.
Today I was sick in Kyoto. My emails always reach you when I'm not feeling well, even though I’m generally happy here. Well, it would be good if my Visa card were to work again, but it looks like that might happen soon. MUBI is currently streaming Werner Herzog’s Family Romance LLC. Have you seen it yet? It's a bizarre, mad, and wonderful film. I have the peculiar feeling that Herzog didn't create an entirely un-Japanese character in his actor-father... Anyway: death also plays a role there. I have to get a better understanding of the morbidity behind all the ikebana perfection.
Watching Afire again yesterday, I found within it what was written on the outer wall of the Higashi Hongan-ji temple here in Kyoto: "To Discover the Meaning of Being Born as Human Being." Could be an advertising slogan, but I agree with you: the film seeks an antidote to destruction in the human itself, palpable in scenes of (self-imposed) exclusion and loneliness. I'm thinking of the night Leon wakes up once again, not because someone next door is moaning, but because the other three are playing badminton in the dark garden with those curious LED bats. He hides behind the curtain to escape Nadja's gaze. It's a film about friendship and closeness more than about the climate crisis.
How people can, or could, get along well with each other is something Nadja seems to understand. She holds the group together. I find it quite difficult not to see in her a character that makes me feel nervous: the motherly, caring, yet liberated young woman. Petzold tells us that Paula Beer chose the frumpy (I got that from you!) clogs for her character. Because Nadja doesn't care about the others’ opinions. But her character seems so familiar that she strikes me more as a stereotype than a breathing woman with inherent contradictions. Why does her portrayal bother me so much? A voice in my head says: "Well, well, what do you want? As a woman, you can't escape that anyway." Objectification always seizes you anew, even or especially from within myself. I know I'm not alone in this; many women in my circle of friends feel the same way. And you?
To conceptualize the “object” is difficult. I understand objects and subjects mostly through psychoanalysis. There the object status is not necessarily a problem: anyone who is not me is an object. I just have to remember that they are subjects for themselves. So maybe your Chris Kraus suggestion is apt: don't be afraid of the object, especially if it comes in the disguise of a female body. But it still takes more to convince me.
Maybe there will be a glass of sake for me tonight. What are you drinking in your cloister cell?
I’m stumbling into my response today. I have just come home from a party where some felt the need to flex their intellectual muscles in the most annoying ways. I can feel a rebellious impulse stirring in reaction, searching for a form. But for now I'm at home, listening to music and starting this email. The mood is right, and so I write into the night. Sometimes nothing feels better.
The internet has a name for the type of woman Nadja embodies, but I can't think of it. Anyway: she is one who can keep up with the guys; who devours cheeseburgers and remains slender; is never in a bad mood. Kumpel-Typ, but make it sexy. Uncomplicated, perfect. The perfidious thing about this ideal is that in the reck-less pursuit of its fulfillment it’s easy to feel like you're the master of yourself: not a reclining odalisque, but a good sport, jumping every fence. I do, however, think that Nadja breaks out of this role at the end. She aban-dons Leon in the pathology department, doesn't return his love, withdraws from him. And Leon? The cynic in me says: he reaps the profits. In the end, he and Helmut bend over the photo of Nadja as a Rückenfigur. The two gentlemen place her—now in her version as an unattainable object of past desire—as the crowning conclu-sion of their joint literary achievement. But am I really a cynic?
Speaking of odalisque: what shall we make of the Heinrich Heine poem? Of the anecdote that Devid tells? Petzold said he wasn't thinking about Orientalism. But that's how it is with a film, a book, they develop their own independence and run with it.
Now I am tired and still have to make the bed.
I am also a bit tired after more than two weeks of traveling. Today, I stood in front of a shrine on an island near Hiroshima and suddenly had to leave, even though I had just arrived. I could no longer take anything in and had to process, sitting in an excessively air-conditioned Starbucks nearby for several hours.
Nadja has something of a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl without the mania. Your "good sport" immediately brought to my mind the image of a little goat happily jumping over the pasture and nudging everyone with its little horns. Nevertheless, I continue to ask myself whether my judgment of Nadja is unjust. Helmut and Leon at the end ... that seems to me almost like a power struggle between two goats, which Leon can only cope with because, like his editor, he has turned Nadja into an object. I guess that's cynical too, but somehow Nadja has both of them in the palm of her hand, doesn't she? In the end, she is the cynic.
I must confess: I have never read Saïd! The mention of the "little Arab" made me wonder, but I can't really make sense of it. For me, Heine's Asra and the Pompeiian death of Felix and Devid are connected, simply by the verse "those who perish when they love." Or is that too heavy-handed?
What are your thoughts?
It has become dark here by now, but the billboards and car lights are not asleep yet.
"looking eastward for apocalyptic renewal." That's a fragment from Steven Lee's book The Ethnic Avant-Garde. For me, it is connected to Afire. There too a constellation of East, apocalypse, renewal: “And I stem from the tribe of Asra // From those who, when they love, they perish.” As Nadja utters this last Heine verse the film's story tips towards ominosity.
Heine's Orientalism tears the film out of Leon's inertia. The narrative thus renews and sustains itself through the appropriation (or suggestion—these are two different interpretations) of an Other that is exterior to it. But does the story also open itself to this Other? This question comes up because I almost wrote, "Just as Leon can't write again until he breaks free of his hermetic self-obsession." Whether he actually does, though, is something we have been questioning over the past few weeks. Is it possible to open oneself to the unknown without instrumentalizing it for one's own purposes? Someone who answers this question in the affirmative would perhaps bring up "love" or "aesthetic experience" as examples—"disinterested and free pleasure," says Kant. A beautiful idea! And yet I am sceptical. What is free from purpose, surplus value, enrichment, interest?
Above, I have described Leon's state as inertia. The OED writes: "a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force." Such external forces—the fire, Heine's "Orient”—bear upon Afire as ever-removed forebodings. We never see the inferno itself, only a ghoulish glow in the sky; later its aftermath, the torched hands, the dead forest. Such an atmosphere of foreboding, an Ahnung, is the driving impetus for Leon as well as for the inner dynamics of the film. I would contrast it to the actual coming into appearance of death, fire, apocalypse which would offer chances to get a hold of, to seize these moments as events. Perhaps there lies an answer to the question of purposelessness. Is it possible to reap a profit from an Ahnung, which is nourished by distance and does not grasp anything? On that note: I never feel shame when I read my writing that followed an Ahnung, a hunch. I do, however, at times when I find that an old text feigned too much confidence in its argument. I think this has to do with the objectification you describe (the argument needs an object of contemplation): “Objectification becomes a problem whern the counterpart is no longer allowed to unfold in a process of becoming, but is mobilized in the service of an idea.” I feel ashamed when I feel guilty of this offense, perhaps akin to Leon’s own struggles with this feeling.
Above, I have described Leon's state as inertia. The OED writes: "a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force." Such external forces—the fire, Heine's "Orient”—bear upon Afire as ever-removed forebodings. We never see the inferno itself, only a ghoulish glow in the sky; later its aftermath, the torched hands, the dead forest. Such an atmosphere of foreboding, an Ahnung, is the driving impetus for Leon as well as for the inner dynamics of the film. I would contrast it to the actual coming into appearance of death, fire, apocalypse which would offer chances to get a hold of, to seize these moments as events. Perhaps there lies an answer to the question of purposelessness. Is it possible to reap a profit from an Ahnung, which is nourished by distance and does not grasp anything?
On that note: I never feel shame when I read my writing that followed an Ahnung, a hunch. I do, however, at times when I find that an old text feigned too much confidence in its argument. I think this has to do with the objectification you describe (the argument needs an object of contemplation): “Objectification becomes a problem whern the counterpart is no longer allowed to unfold in a process of becoming, but is mobilized in the service of an idea.” I feel ashamed when I feel guilty of this offense, perhaps akin to Leon’s own struggles with this feeling.
Three images to finish: fire, burnt forest, sea. I had intended to write in this email about the relationship between fire and water—especially what it means to behold these different images and landscapes, the ethical responsibility they place upon us. I’ll save that for another time.
In unserem erstmals stattfindenden VIENNALE YOUNG CRITICS' CIRCLE arbeitet eine Gruppe junger, internationaler Filmkritiker:innen unter editorischer und organisatorischer Begleitung von Autor und Filmkritiker Patrick Holzapfel an einigen Texten, die sich mit dem Programm des diesjährigen Festivals auseinandersetzen.