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German filmmaker Christian Petzold on his latest movie 'Afire'


Leon and Felix, a writer and photographer, show up at the holiday house of Felix's family home along the Baltic coast and find a stranger there moved in, smiling, making lasagna and having a romance, while in the deep forest behind the house, a fire burns and also begins to move in. The film "Afire" won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It is the latest film from Christian Petzold, the acclaimed German director of "Phoenix" and other films. He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: Thank you very much.

SIMON: This film kind of grew out of the pandemic.

PETZOLD: Yes. During the pandemic, I was in bed because I was infected with COVID for four weeks. And I lay down with fever dreams and a script, and the script was a dystopia story. And I have lost everything, any desire to realize this because I said to myself, when I will come out of this situation, I want to make a movie about life, about the youth, about the desire and about our fantastic world.

SIMON: And I gather the films of Eric Rohmer and the works of Chekhov were an inspiration.

PETZOLD: During this time I lay down and have to lay down in bed. I was - also the main actress, Paula Beer, was also infected, too, and there was a gift by our distributor from France. It was the whole work of Eric Rohmer. And in this four weeks during our fever dreams, we have - would see all the Rohmer movies. The French people have a summer movie genre - people at the beach. They start laughing. They find their selves. They find their identities. But we haven't got this in Germany. The Americans have a summer movie genre, too. Sometimes it's a horror movie, but it's also something to do with youth and getting adult and find an identity and so on.

SIMON: Thomas Schubert plays the pompous writer, Leon. May I tell you, it's a little hard to like him?

PETZOLD: You know, I feel a little bit ashamed about that because in his character, there are many, many autobiographical things of my own life as an artist. And so when you don't like him, I feel a little bit ashamed.

SIMON: Well, I love the director. It's the character that I have a problem with.

PETZOLD: But I must say, the actor said to me, hey, you are an artist, too. You have made a - also like the character, Leon, you have to - made a second movie. Do you have any difficulties like him? And so I said, yeah, a little bit. I don't want to talk about this. And they say, what's the title of your second movie? And I said, oh, it was "Cuba Libre." And they said, the book Leon is writing in "Afire," the title is "Club Sandwich." Yeah. And Cuba libre and the club sandwich - it's the menu - yeah, a menu of artists who are not so simpatico. And so I start laughing, and I must say it was like a psychoanalysis treatment for me. They helped me with humor to forget my own artist past.

SIMON: So you chose the working title of the manuscript "Club Sandwich" as - since we're talking about film, I can call it an homage to your film "Cuba Libre."

PETZOLD: Yeah. This was not by conscious. It was a little bit like this. I have written this bad novel, "Club Sandwich." I've written three or four pages from this novel because the publisher's reading it in the movie. And it's...

SIMON: Oh, that's right. And the publisher has to read from the novel, so you had to write sections of this bad novel.

PETZOLD: Yeah, I have to write it. And it cost me three days because to write a bad novel in a good way that you not start laughing directly - yeah, so it's very hard. And after three days of writing his novel, I have the feeling, hey, it's not so bad.


SIMON: Well, you had the pride of authorship. You have made several films with Paula Beer, who plays Nadja, the young woman in the film. The writer doesn't really see her, does he? He has a crush on her, but doesn't really see her.

PETZOLD: This is a problem also for directors and their muses. They see red dresses. They see fantastic hair, fantastic lips and so on, but they don't see the subjects. And this is something I can see in his behavior. He is standing behind windows, behind doors. He's watching her. But he never ask her something. For him, she's like Rita Hayworth or something. She's not real. And I think this is a male position in storytelling.

SIMON: Yeah. Nadja, in fact, asks a crucial question of the writer. Do you ever see anything around you?

PETZOLD: Yeah. To be an artist and to be a writer in Germany nowadays, you are a little bit like a 19th-century artist, you and the world. The world is especially just for you. When you are in parties, private parties, there are some people standing always in the kitchen and discussing. And there's a big room where the music is, and there are people who are dancing. They have bodies. They have - they're happy, yeah? But the people in the kitchen, they are talking about them - say, hey, look at how she's dancing. To leave, to come out of this kitchen prison, to reach the dancing floor - yeah? - is something what Leon had to learn.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. I don't think I've ever heard it put better.


SIMON: So you've done films, I gather - water and fire. Are you making films about all the elements?

PETZOLD: You know, I have a very hard Protestant education, yeah? And when something's very good - yeah? - I can't sit down and be satisfied and say, fantastic. Now one year I want to sit down there. This was great, good work. I want to have a beer on a porch and look and something like that. So I have to say in the same moment when something is good, I have to do another one. Yeah? I have to go on. So I said, after we make "Undine," which was a fantastic time, I said, oh, this is the first part of a trilogy. This is water. The next is fire. But now I think I lost myself a little bit in this Protestant thing, and I want to make holidays for one year, so there is no third one.



SIMON: Well, I'll look forward to the next one, whatever it is. Christian Petzold - his new film, "Afire," is in theaters now. Thank you so much for being with us.

PETZOLD: Thank you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.