The German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s spiky and at times mordantly funny “Afire” is a tonic for moviegoers tired of nice, squishable, likable, relatable dull and dull characters. It’s a look — for starters — at a splenetic young writer who, during a stay in the country, waits for his publisher to weigh in on his unfortunately titled second novel “Club Sandwich.” He frets that it’s no good, though his arrogance is sturdier and more consuming than his doubts. Yet while the writer is boorish, he’s never insipid; he’s pleasurably bad company.
There’s far more to this lamentable creature as you learn, and would expect from Petzold. One of the most reliably interesting and surprising filmmakers working today, Petzold makes sharp, visually intelligent, psychologically sophisticated movies. He likes working in traditional genres that he bends to his own purposes while drawing on a range of cinematic traditions: classical Hollywood, the European art film, the avant-garde. He’s probably best known in the United States for “Barbara” (2012) and “Transit” (2019), atmospheric thrillers in which characters — one in East Germany, the other in a present-day Nazi-like limbo — seek to escape states of terror that are both apparatuses of power and conditions of being.
“Afire” is lighter in tone and feeling. Petzold has said that, among other influences, he was inspired by the films of Éric Rohmer, as well as French and American coming-of-age stories set in summer. Yet he likes to mix it up, and “Afire” opens with a teasingly ominous sequence that finds the writer and a friend driving on a country road in a car that soon breaks down, leaving them stranded. By the time night falls, the tone has darkened, as have the surrounding woods, which now seems like a setting for one of those horror flicks in which nubile kids in cutoffs are sacrificed to the gods of cinema.
The writer, Leon (Thomas Schubert), and his friend, Felix (Langston Uibel), make it relatively unscathed to their destination, a vacation home on Germany’s Baltic coast. Compact and inviting, the house is owned by Felix’s mother, and has two bedrooms and a leaky roof. There, the men will be alone while Leon waits for his publisher and Felix readies an art-school portfolio. When they arrive, though, they find that the mother has invited a third, a stranger to the men named Nadja (Paula Beer). She’s nowhere to be seen, but her traces — wine glasses on the table, discarded clothing on the floor — perfume the house.