Berlinale: Poetry and Prose

Thomas Schubert in Christian Petzold’s Afire (2023) © Christian Schulz

“I’m such an asshole!” hisses Leon (Thomas Schubert) at himself, and he’s not wrong. There are moments in Afire when you might wish that Christian Petzold were telling someone else’s story, but any trust invested in the director of Yella (2007), Phoenix (2014), and Undine (2020) is nearly always rewarded several times over. Petzold’s unequivocal mastery of his craft aside, Afire’s first hour or so plays as any number of agreeable comedies might, but when the twists and revelations kick in and interlock, Afire takes on a heft worthy of the oeuvre.

Leon and his best friend, Felix (Langston Uibel), arrive at a summer house by the Baltic Sea to discover that Felix’s mother, who owns the place, forgot to let them know that someone else was already there. Nadja (Paula Beer) is a sprite enjoying a fling with a lifeguard, Devid (Enno Trebs), and Leon’s not having it. He’s come out here from Berlin to get some work done on the novel he’s been struggling with, and watching Felix strike up immediate friendships with both Nadja and Devid only compounds his irritation.

We’ve seen a lot of grumpy men, young and old, in the movies, but Schubert finds new ticks and beats to keep Leon’s persistent annoyance fresh and real. Everyone around him worries about the forest fires blazing not all that far away, but Leon seems convinced that his work is so important that the flames wouldn’t dare to interrupt it. But death is coming. Maybe not for him right now, but it’s coming, and that realization is the catharsis he didn’t know he was looking for.

In one of the many moments Leon steps in it, he makes fun of a woman’s pronunciation of the name of one of Germany’s most significant postwar literary figures, Uwe Johnson—unaware that the woman is standing right behind him. In Leaving and Staying, seasoned documentarian Volker Koepp sets out across northeastern Germany—with a stopover in Sheerness, the English town where Johnson died in 1984—to speak with people who knew the writer or have studied his work.

Over the course of three delightfully low-key hours, Koepp is far less concerned with reconstructing Johnson’s biography than with creating a series of relaxed and informal portraits of his interviewees—among them, filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his wife, Helga Elizabeth—interspersed with beautifully shot explorations of the pastoral and seaside landscapes that spoke to Johnson. In 2000, Margarethe von Trotta, working for German television, directed a series of adaptations of Jahrestage (Anniversaries), Johnson’s cycle of four novels published between 1971 and 1983.

Johnson’s name naturally comes up in von Trotta’s competition entry, Ingeborg Bachmann: Journey into the Desert.Both Johnson and Bachmann were members of Gruppe 47, a cluster of writers seeking to revitalize German literature after the Second World War. Johnson wrote an appreciation of Bachmann’s work, A Trip to Klagenfurt, immediately after her death in 1973, and the year before, he edited Max Frisch’s Sketchbook 1966–1971. The passionate but doomed affair between Bachmann and Frisch is the narrative backbone of von Trotta’s latest feature, which hops all up and down the timeline of Bachmann’s writing life and between Zurich, Rome, and the sands of North Africa.

As anyone would expect, Vicky Krieps impressively embodies Bachmann, capturing her lanky postures in sickness and in health as well as the slight wisp gliding over her voice. But aside from the costumes—seriously, the well-to-do knew how to turn out in the late 1950s and early 1960s—little else is unexpected in Ingeborg Bachmann, a well-made but conventional biopic with all the appropriate sheen.

The least conventional feature in the main competition is Music, Angela Schanelec’s goodbye to language—at least for the time being. Schanelec draws inspiration from Sophocles, but giving into the temptation to map the lines between Jon (Aliocha Schneider) and Oedipus or Iro (Agathe Bonitzer) and Jocasta would be beside the point. If there is a literary parallel here, it’s poetry, not prose. Schanelec’s arresting, often spare scenarios are composed along the rocky coast of Greece, in a nearby village, or on a dusty hill—until a jolting passage toward the end takes us to a street that cuts through Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.

For the most part, performers hold their positions, but when they do move along a predetermined trajectory, shots are usually limited to a single action. An accidental killing smears a white stone with blood, and there’s a suicidal leap and a clearly emotional reunion between a mother and son, but words are very, very rarely spoken. Instead, they’re sung; the songs Jon sings in a studio come from Doug Tielli, and they offer welcome respite from so much silent tragedy.

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