- Christian Petzold
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 43 minutes
- Not Rated
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
With destructive fires ravaging so many countries around the world, German director Christian Petzold’s film has a strange relevance. Although the fire to which the title refers is seen for most of the film as a distant but menacing threat, it will be central to the eventual fate of two of the characters. The bulk of the film consists of a character study of a writer filled with self-doubt struggling to complete his second novel.
Leon (Thomas Schubert) has achieved some success with his first novel, but is having a difficult time revising the manuscript of his second work. He is upset that his mother’s cleaning lady, upon reading part of it called it “a bit schmaltzy,” and we wonder what he himself thinks about it, because he tends to fall asleep when attempting to work on it.
Accompanied by his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) a student photographer working on his portfolio for his studies, he is journeying to Felix’s mother’s cabin close to the Baltic Sea for a working vacation. When their car breaks down, the out of shape Leon remains behind while Felix hikes through the woods to find the cabin. Eventually both of them transport their luggage on their backs to their lodging where they are surprised to see that someone else also is occupying the cabin. A call to Felix’s mother discloses that she had gotten mixed up on dates and rented one of the rooms to a young woman named Nadja (Paula Beer). They do not see her that first day, but at night they can hear her fierce love-making through the thin walls, much to Felix’s annoyance. He cannot get any rest at night in order for him to write during the day!
Leon has a difficult time concentrating on his manuscript, his anxiety heightened by the knowledge that his editor is coming that weekend to go over the work. At the beach he and Leon spot local life guard Devid (Enno Trebs), who turns out to be the lover of their yet to be seen cohabitant of the cabin. All the while the glow of a distant forest fire can be seen on the horizon. When they finally meet Nadja, she turns out to be a beautiful young woman who works at the local beach hotel, selling ice cream on the beach.
Leon is so centered on himself and his work that he looks down upon Felix as a mere photographer, his attitude isolating him from the others. Even his clothing sets him off, its color being black and his sleeves long, even though its summer. He resents Nadja at first, just as he refuses most of the invitations of the others to go to the beach or join them. He also resents Devid’s interest in his friend Felix. When he warms up to Nadja and allows her to read his manuscript, he is taken aback by her reaction. She labels it “crap,” which evokes resentment and a putdown of her as an ice-cream seller unqualified to make a literary judgment. Only later after his publisher Helmut (Matthias Brandt) arrives and befriends Nadja, will he learn that she is finishing a PhD in literary studies.
Leon has regarded his finishing his manuscript as the center of the world, so he is very disappointed when Helmut not only has to cut short his visit but also sems more interested in Nadja, Felix and Devid than his proposed book. He has already been able to espy in Helmut’s copy large segments crossed out and many notes in the margins.
While all the above is transpiring, the distant fire is drawing closer. They see helicopters flying overhead carrying fire-dousing chemicals. The authorities send out a warning. Ashes descend upon the four, and in one scene they stand on the roof of the porch and gaze at the approaching conflagration. Eventually, Leon is drawn out of his self-centered world into a much larger world that does not revolve around himself. There is an off-screen tragedy that finishes his journey toward wholeness, resulting in his realizing the shallowness of what he has written. The film ends on a more hopeful note, Leon discovering what every good writer knows, that one writes best from one’s own deeply-felt experience. Some have called the film “a slow burn,” and it will indeed bore fans of action films, but as a study of an ambitious and self-centered man arriving at a measure of self-awareness and becoming a more humane man, it is well worth watching.
This review will be in the August issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.