EIFF 2023: Thomas Schubert on Afire
Thomas Schubert is fantastic as Leon, the self-obsessed writer at the heart of Christian Petzold’s Afire. We speak to Schubert about his affinity with his character and the experience of working with Petzold
Since his debut in Karl Markovics’ Breathing, Thomas Schubert has been attracted to difficult characters who may not fully understand their own motivations. In Christian Petzold’s Afire he plays Leon, a writer who goes with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) to Felix’s family home in the woods to work on his manuscript. When they arrive, however, Felix’s mother has double-booked the place, offering it to her friend’s niece Nadja (Paula Beer). This irritates Leon, who is determined to put himself through the solitary struggle he believes will create a great novel. Meanwhile, news of nearby forest fires drips through the summer idyll.
To Schubert, the script’s tonal lightness was initially a surprise in comparison to Petzold’s earlier films, but that does not replace narrative and thematic depth. Its layers drew him to this portrait of the artist as a prickly young man. “I like it when I can’t figure out a script right away,” Schubert says. “I really enjoyed reading Afire for the first time and not knowing what direction it was going.”
Before shooting, Petzold gave each actor literature, music, and films relating to their individual character before sitting back and letting his actors work. Schubert describes Petzold’s technique as being “like a scientist who puts chemicals in a tube and creates life. He is really interested in what we have to offer and creates an environment where your imagination can thrive.”
Petzold also took his actors on a tour of shooting locations after the table read. “We all clicked immediately,” Schubert says. “The chemistry really speaks to the casting and the choices Christian made. But it’s interesting how the dynamic changed throughout shooting because the camera was always next to [my character] Leon. The friends were always further away, where they would have some sort of action and Leon would be on the other side with the camera. That longing naturally occurred."
Despite Leon’s standoffishness, his determination to make something of himself is familiar, even sympathetic. “I knew Leon right away,” Schubert says. “I was 17 when I started acting, and my first movie was a success. After that, you ask yourself, can I follow that success? You have this idea of who you have to be to thrive, and huge imposter syndrome. Leon reminded me of that phase in my career.” Schubert sees Leon drawn to the “idea of perfection” and the “idea of the wounded artist”, which he defines from Leon’s perspective: “I have to draw my artistic energy from some pain I hold in myself and I cannot enjoy things around me.” It is a seductive, but unhealthy, concept.
Schubert is not worried about losing viewers. “Since everything is told from Leon’s perspective, you don't have to worry about being nice for the audience – they see everything through your eyes,” he says. Indeed, Leon is a sort of self-awareness test. “What I’ve found is that whether you like Leon tells more about yourself than it does the character,” Schubert says. Films allow a level of voyeurism and vulnerability into strangers’ lives. “In real life, you rarely watch somebody be so openly and honestly disgusting; how you react when somebody is so vulnerable says something about yourself,” he notes. “Many people hated it – they said, ‘I hated it so much because it was so close to me.’”
Afire was conceived during the pandemic, and physical and emotional isolation impacts Leon’s mind. “Observing and not interacting with people makes Leon's fantasy go AWOL,” Schubert says. “He comes to all these false conclusions about people.” The actor sees further significance in this: “We all have the feeling that Leon's manuscript is very bad,” he says, “because we watch him make up stories and bad opinions.” But Schubert suggests this isn't necessarily a nasty streak in Leon. Rather, it's a longing, or as Schubert puts it, “a jealousy of people being able to enjoy themselves”.
In Afire's striking late scene, which Schubert remembers as one of the longest to shoot with its many simultaneous actions, Leon’s priorities are all-consuming but startlingly myopic, which fits Schubert’s acting ethos. “I don't believe there are many rules in acting, but you can't act multiple things at once,” Schubert says. “That doesn't translate. Leon's priority was his book. The choice to make him not see the ashes [from the fires] felt best, and the way it was edited amplified his blindness.”
Leon’s journey centres on the idea of suffering and sacrificing for art that he fetishised, as well as the openhearted life he shunned. “Leon wrote his manuscript for his ego and career,” Schubert says. “In the excerpt you hear, you can feel this cynicism and disrespect for people. After that,” he says, alluding to a conclusion he cannot spoil, “Leon writes for other people. His art gets better because you write for somebody out of love, not spite. I think that's the source of artistry and creativity – not pain, because you only have the pain. It's rather love for somebody else.”
Afire makes its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22 Aug and is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 25 Aug