The story goes like this: In 2020, filmmaker Christian Petzold and actress Paula Beer were in the midst of promoting their second film together, the modern-day fairytale romance Undine, when they both got sick with COVID-19. At the time, Petzold was already scripting a dystopian drama as their next collaboration. The problem? It wasn't very good. Beer, who is always quick to praise Petzold's work, knew it. Even worse, he knew that she knew it. "Every time I talked to her about it, I could feel her lack of enthusiasm," recalls the German filmmaker.
Once he found himself quarantined, Petzold began to wonder whether Beer was right. "I started thinking about the dystopian movies of the past 20 years or so, and I realized I don't like them very much," Petzold explains. "For me, they all have a kind of fascistic structure. They don't think our world is worth fighting for, and I think cinema is about fighting for our reality."
Petzold instead found inspiration in an unlikely source: Shortly after he got sick, he was given a collection of films by French auteur, Éric Rohmer. "Éric Rohmer was, for me, a bit like a vaccine," Petzold says. "I was a little afraid to rewatch his films at first, because I'd always thought of them as boring — in a good way. But perhaps it was the fever. I found myself completely in tune with them. I noticed everything — the way the people moved, kissed, talked, and thought. They felt very present to me. It was a fantastic experience."
The result of his fever-induced binge watch is Afire, a romantic dramedy centered on an insecure writer, Leon (Thomas Schubert), who finds himself sharing a seaside holiday home with a group of friends and strangers. As a series of forest fires grow ever closer, Leon finds himself both drawn to and challenged by one those strangers, a kind, inquisitive woman named Nadja (Beer). The film is by no means a dystopian drama, not is it a straightforward homage to Rohmer. Instead, it a unique riff on both, one that finds hope for its protagonist and the world-at-large through the connection between Leon and Nadja.
Watching Afire, it's hard to imagine anyone other than Beer playing Nadja. According to Petzold, that's because he never had anyone else in mind. "Sometimes I'll say to Paula that I've written a character to be played by anybody, but that's never totally true," he admits. "When I start writing my scripts, I have to know who is going to be playing each character, because they're no longer just my material at that point. They have their own physical counterparts and I have to respect them in that way from that moment on. Especially when one of them is played by Paula."
A.frame: Paula, you've worked with Christian three times now. When he reaches out to you about a new film, do you even need to read a script before you say yes?
PAULA BEER: Christian's laughing right now, and there's a reason for that. When we worked on Transit, I was really taken aback by how differently Christian structures his days than other directors. For me, it's become the best way to work. It's actually fun to act on Christian's sets, because it doesn't feel like work. He creates such a relaxed bubble. It was on the set of Transit that he told me the story of Undine. He later sent me the script and I read it, and I immediately called him and said, "I'd love to play that character." But then I remember thinking, "I really enjoyed working on Transit and I'm really looking forward to Undine, but I hope it doesn't ruin the nice experience we've just had."
We've had three amazing experiences together now, and they've all turned into three movies that I really, really like. But I'm also afraid of what would happen if we just decided to do everything we want to do together. Maybe I'd end up being disappointed or thinking one experience was better than another, or whatever. That's why I’m always very strict with Christian. I always just tell him, "I need the script, and then we can talk." It's also important to note that Christian's scripts aren't like other scripts you read. Christian's scripts read like novels. You never want to put them aside.
Was it at all difficult for you to adapt to his unique style of writing and shooting?
BEER: Well, the way we got to know each other was very unusual as well. Normally, when you meet with a director, they'll send you a script or a scene and you'll do the audition, and then they'll send you home and maybe they'll call you. But with Christian, we went to the casting office and sat at a table and talked about everything but the movie. At one point, the casting director was like, "Do you maybe want to talk about the movie?" Christian said, "Yeah, sure," and he told me the story for Transit. I hadn't read the script at that time, and at the end of that, he said, "I'd like you to play Marie." I went home thinking, "Wow. That was a really nice introduction to a project.
One thing Christian always does is he takes you to the film's locations before you shoot in them. He wants you, as an actor, to see the set before it's a set, just as a pure and real place. We went to Marseilles and had a really, really nice time. It ended up being an important period where we got to know each other better, without the pressure of being on the clock during production. I think that's where connections are made. Like in Transit, it's when you’re on the way to something that connections appear. People had told me beforehand what shooting with Christian would be like, but I still wasn't sure how it was going to be. When we started production, it really was like they all said. We'd rehearse for one, two or three hours and then shoot one take of a scene. They'd change the lenses and then shoot one take from a different angle. Personally, I don't have trouble adapting to different directors' styles. I know some actors who would be stressed out by the pressure of having just one take to get it right, but, for me, if Christian says it's good, then I trust him. In the end, it'd be his fault if it wasn't! [Laughs]
Prior to Afire, was Éric Rohmer much of an inspiration or point of reference for you, Christian?
CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: He really only became one after I'd watched his movies again. I'm much more of a Hitchcock fan, I have to say. But I'm sure that Éric Rohmer was a Hitchcock fan, too. Rohmer was always thinking about F.W. Murnau's Faust, for instance, and Hitchcock loved Faust, too. In that way, we're all in the same family, but we're also totally different. Rohmer's interested in something different than Hitchcock and I, but I think that's the nature of cinema, really. When I read old film magazines, they always talk about Éric Rohmer movies playing in the same cinema as the James Bond movies. Now, they're totally separated. Some of them are in a museum, for all intents and purposes, and some of them are in a parking lot. But when I saw Rohmer's movies again, I thought that his movies and James Bond did have something to do with each other, you know? It was great to rediscover that and to remember what could and can be possible in cinema.
Paula, do you remember how Christian initially pitched Afire to you?
BEER: The funny thing is that for Undine and Afire, Christian basically told me the stories of those films. We sat down together and he literally told me his idea for his next project, and it really felt like listening to a spoken tale. Christian is really good at telling stories, and what's nice about being introduced to a film that way is that I really get Christian's vision for it right away. Usually, when you meet with a director and they give you the script, you end up bringing your own point of view to the document. But with this, I had Christian's point of view already when I got the script, so I really could see Afire as it was going to be.
When I was reading the script, it really seemed like the full package. I thought, "I see even more things in it now than I did before, and ideas about how I could play my character." I can't just be interested in the movie; I have to be interested in the character. And usually, whenever I read the last page of one of Christian's scripts, I call him up and say, "Let's go."
Afire is such an enigmatic movie. How did you describe it to Paula, Christian?
PETZOLD: Do you know the James Joyce book, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, or the Dylan Thomas collection, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog? I think I told Paula that Afire’s story is basically, Portrait of an Artist as an Asshole. At the time, Paula wondered, like I did, "Why would Nadja ever fall in love or even try to care about this guy?" Eventually, I realized it's because he needs help, and wanting to help someone can sometimes be a deeper feeling than wanting to laugh at them. I also think Nadja has a bit of a sadistic streak in her.
There's a part of her that wants to tease this guy so that he can open himself up a little. I thought that could be a great dynamic, and during our rehearsals for the film, I could see that in Paula's behavior, in her smile and her laugh. She wanted to tease Leon in a very hard, biting way, too, and I could tell that Thomas Schubert, who plays Leon, loves to be teased. There was real humor there, and the moment I saw that between Paula and Thomas, I knew the film would work.
Leon is a character I think every writer and artist will be able to recognize themself in, whether they want to or not. Christian, how much did you find yourself relating and not relating to him?
PETZOLD: We just had four screenings of the film in New York, and I can tell you that after each screening, young artists would come up to me and say, "That was me on the screen." So, I think it's pretty clear that there are many, many young male artists who are assholes and insecure and prone to a certain 19th-century male toxicity. Personally, I know everything about Leon. [Laughs] When I first started writing the film, I would make jokes about him. I'd laugh at him. I'd think about situations where he could die or be shamed in horrible ways. But then, during our rehearsals, it became pretty clear that my very intelligent actors knew there were autobiographical elements inside Leon.
I remember one rehearsal, in particular, they asked me, "What happened to you during your second movie?" I didn't want to talk about that! But they insisted, and after about an hour, they knew that my second film was called Cuba Libre and that I was an asshole when I made it. Like Leon, during the making of that film, my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife, visited me on the Belgian coast. After three hours, she said to me, "You're playing a director. You are not a director. I can't stay here. I don't see you." I was so irritated that I ended up marrying her a year later. [Laughs] So, my second film was Cuba Libre and Leon's second novel is called Club Sandwich, and they are brothers, in a way. But because my actors all were able to laugh at those connections, I ultimately felt a little bit relieved. It was like the 1995 version of me, that ultimate asshole, was able to be liberated and finally find a bit of relief. I could start laughing about me, too, because of my cast. That was a fantastic experience, but not one I necessarily want to have again!
Paula, Nadja feels much more grounded than the characters you played in Transit and Undine. Was that what appealed to you about her?
BEER: What I liked about Nadja from the very first moment is that she felt secure and so sure of who she is. As an actress, that's a bit frightening, because it's like, "Okay, the character knows who she is, but I don't know! I have to find out and make decisions about how she's going to be." What I like so much about her is that she's so sure about who she is that she doesn't need people around her, but she also welcomes their company. She's really self-confident. That's why she doesn't need to talk about herself too much. For me, what helped the most was really embracing Nadja's vibe by not making too much of the things she's dealing with or thinking about. I just had to concentrate on the moment and be able to really meet the people around her and listen to them. Christian also made it so that she does have a life outside of the film's story, which makes it easy for her to say, "I can be part of your story, but if you don't want me here, I can go over here and still have a good time." She's really independent and really mature. I just really love that about her. She's very pure, in a way, and I think that's what makes her more grounded than Undine and Marie [from Transit].
Christian, what is it about Paula, as an actress, that makes you want to keep writing roles for her?
PETZOLD: She's a great person to tell stories to. I always have a feeling when I'm telling her the story for a film that it's getting better and better because she's in front of me and she's hearing it. That's true of our relationship when we're actually making the film, too. Sometimes, when I'll be telling her an idea, I'll know after the 14th or 15th sentence that it's not good, because I can see her reaction in her eyes. It's like a test. The story always gets better when she's in front of me.
Does that mean you're the kind of filmmaker who isn't opposed to changing things on the fly or taking notes from your actors?
PETZOLD: I always have the feeling while we're making the film that we've destroyed my script completely, but then it ends up turning out just like the script. I don't know how that happens. The first time we shot on location, for example, was a dinner scene with all of the film's central characters. In the morning, we got there and I saw the actors walking around the dinner table looking for their positions. I didn't say to any of them, "You're going to sit here and you're going to sit here." I didn't say anything. Paula just sat down in one seat and Thomas sat himself directly opposite her. I don't know why he did that. Maybe it's because he's secretly a masochist who wanted his character to be directly in Paul's line of fire. Either way, they found their positions on their own in rehearsal. When the actors make decisions like that, I know that they know what the scene is supposed to be about, even if it wasn't what I'd originally intended.
There was another scene where Nadja critiques Leon's book, and we changed the entire scene. Paula thought that Nadja's critique felt too much like a critique you'd read in a literary magazine. She wasn't wrong, either. I've read a lot of literary critiques, and I was proud that Nadja's critique felt like it belonged in a magazine, but you could also feel my personal pride on the page. Paula felt it, and she quite rightly said, "Nadja isn't you. She can't speak like this. I want to change this scene." I said okays, and she totally ditched one whole page of the script. In its place, she had Nadja say, "The book is bullshit, and you know it is," and that's so, so much better. There's a part of me that wishes critics would sometimes just say that. Sometimes, one sentence is enough.
Do you two already have plans to work together again?
PETZOLD: Yes. I've already told Paula the story for a new film. Now, I'm preparing a script that I haven't finished it yet. But when I do, we'll have to meet somewhere so that we can first talk for half an hour about God and the whole world and then Paula will say, "Can we talk about the script?" Then I'll tell her that I want her to play the character of this young woman, a piano player, and Paula will say, "Oh, I can play piano," and then there will be a contract and a signature and we'll start shooting, I hope, in the late summer of next year.
You'll have to read the script first before you agree to anything, right, Paula?
BEER: [Laughs] Correct!
By Alex Welch