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BERLINALE 2023 Competition

Christian Petzold • Director of Afire

“Most of the time sex scenes don't bring anything of value to the story"


- BERLINALE 2023: We talked to the director about his portrait of an unsecure artist and his journey to become a real author

Christian Petzold • Director of Afire

German director Christian Petzold presented his new film Afire [+see also:
film review
interview: Christian Petzold
film profile
in the competition section of this year's Berlinale. We met the director and spoke with him about his inspiration for the story, his personal link to the main character and his aversion for sex scenes.

Cineuropa: At the end, the tone of the film changes. It comes to fiction within fiction.
Christian Petzold: The moment the cops show up, it's about literature. The fiction begins. Only we don't know it then, because the fiction is still too close from what happened before. She looks at him when he confesses his love to her and at that moment she is distracted, the policemen come, as if Sigmund Freud had sent two of them out of the subconscious saying: "Stop the love."

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Are you also that sensitive when it comes to criticism about your work?
I've been a film critic myself. The film critic is a kind of critic that doesn't have a high status in Germany. I think that the heads of the cultural departments think that anyone can write about film. Yet it's a culture in France or the U.S. to write about filmmaking and the perception of the cinematic world. It's not the case here. I love French or American criticism because it loves cinema and makes no distinction between a film by Michael Mann, a film by Joachim Trier or by Jean-Marie Straub.

What inspired you when developing the character of the author in the film?
There are three origins for this character. The first is a film by Eric Rohmer, La Collectionneuse, which is about two male jerks and a young woman. The men imagine a lot of things about this woman. At one point, however, she just walks away and leaves them alone. The second is a novella by Chekhov, titled Missius, in which artist friends spend the summer together. There are two sisters on the neighbour's property. One sister loves one of the men, but they miss out on love because the artist only sees himself. These two things led me to a third point, which is myself. My second film from 1995 was Cuba Libre. With that film, I wanted to achieve great things, but later I realised that I was just playing the director without having passion for the material itself, but only for myself. I remembered that and shared it with Thomas Schubert. So he became someone who only pretends to be a writer.

Why did you decide to cast Thomas Schubert in the lead role?
Thomas can look. This film is about someone who sees this world, who looks all day long, but he sees nothing, he perceives nothing, he understands nothing. You need someone who can look. And Thomas is incredibly good at looking.

You avoid letting the background of the characters enter the story.
I gave them back stories. Felix comes from a wealthy household, while Leon comes from a working class background. The two met at a boarding school. Leon was there only thanks to a scholarship. Leon tries to make up for this discrepancy between them through harshness, for example, by repeatedly saying that he has to work, implying that Felix doesn't need to. Nadja also needs a scholarship for her studies, she is also working class. In the dialogue in the film, I didn't want that to be an issue, but the actors had that as background for their roles. 

They stick to only hinting at sex scenes or depicting them very indirectly, as in this case.
The representation of sex almost never interests me. The portrayal is not true, it's a lie. I feel ashamed, like watching my parents do it. Most of the time it doesn't bring anything of value to the story. You don't need it. I often think to myself that there's something wrong with people who like to shoot sex scenes. To me, it seems abusive.

How did the motif of fire come into the story?
I was in Turkey with my wife, where I visited a huge forest area that was completely burned. It scared me a lot because there were no sounds anymore. There were no birds, no insects, no wind. Everything was black, dead. That was an image of the end for me, a kind of apocalyptic image. Then later, there were fires in Germany and other places in the world, too. Everywhere the forests are burning. When the forests burn in Germany and the forests are our myth, where our fairy tales take place – the Nibelungen, Fritz Lang loved the forest – if these places burn down, what happens to our narratives, our stories?

But it's also about the sea.
I'm a fan of the Baltic Sea because of Nosferatu. It's a great coast. It changes a lot, it's a sea you can't rely on. That's what I liked about it.

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