Film, Film Review, IFFBoston

IFFB REVIEWS: Afire (2023) dir. Christian Petzold & Past Lives (2023) dir. Celine Song

A pair of films take salty and sweet approaches to desire


Afire (2023) dir. Christian Petzold

After watching Undine at IFFBoston Fall Focus 2020 and Phoenix a few months later, I’ve found myself very invested in the career of German director Christian Petzold. While I still need to see his earlier work, I loved his latest film Afire, a pitch-black comedy filled with humor dry as the forest where our protagonists are having one of the worst vacations depicted on the big screen.

The story focuses on a grumpy writer named Leon (Thomas Schubert), who is hoping to finish his second novel at his friend Felix’s summer house near the Baltic Sea. However, when they arrive, the house has another tenant: the beautiful and friendly Nadja (Paula Beer). While interested in her, Leon views everything she does as a distraction, especially when she brings local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) for late night visits. While Felix is more than happy to blow off his photography project to spend time with new friends, Leon goes to farcical lengths to find the peace to write, but very rarely does. The group turns into something of a love quadrangle in surprising ways, though Leon feels like he’s always on the outside. He captures the jealous feeling of becoming second fiddle to interesting new folks at a dinner party, though his reactions cross a few lines of etiquette.

The film, while hilarious, is suffused with impending doom as wildfire alarms sound in town and ash rains from the sky. This isn’t a Don’t Look Up situation, however, as Petzold’s script invests enough in interpersonal drama to avoid feeling like it’s bashing you over the head with a climate change metaphor. Paula Beer is luminous as Nadja, especially when we learn more about her life philosophy and why she’s on this vacation. She continually has an air of mystery, as if we can never really know what she’s thinking. Schubert does tightrope work as Leon, making a lead character who is incredibly punchable but has enough of a sad sack vibe that you can’t totally hate him. You can get pretty close though. Afire should be at the top of everyone’s most anticipated lists for film of 2023, especially if they want something a bit mean and, well, German.


Dir. Christian Petzold
102 min

Coming to theaters this August

Past Lives (2023) dir. Celine Song

Playwright Celine Song (whose first show premiered at the ART!) has a strong debut with Past Lives, a story of two friends divided by distance but bound by fate. When Nora (Greta Lee) emigrated from South Korea to Canada with her family, she left behind her best friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). They reconnect in college over Skype, but their lives are too different and Nora ends things before it can become too painful. Another decade later Hae Sung visits New York, where Nora now lives with her husband Arthur (John Magaro). Can the spark of their relationship turn into something new? Are they even the same people they once knew?

While the film is handsomely shot and well-performed, I couldn’t connect as much as I wished. There was something about the relationship that left me a little cold. I was hoping for a bit more friction, which seemed possible during the Skype sequences, but Hae Sung’s New York visit never boils over into something harder to contemplate. It never feels like Nora’s marriage is in danger, as even Arthur is understanding of the shared history, though he does have some reservations. Song is going for a Before Sunset here but without the desire overriding logic. I’d probably make the same choices as Nora here, but that’s why I’m not a character in a movie. But my reservations do not take away from Celine Song’s confident direction and eye for visuals, especially the rain-soaked streets of Manhattan.

Past Lives
Dir. Celine Song
106 min

Coming to theaters Friday June 2nd

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