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CCFF 2023: Afire & A Disturbance in the Force

May 9, 2023


Saturday, May 6th was Day 2 (and technically the first full day) at the Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) and it was indeed quite a full day for yours truly. I started by watching the first narrative feature of the day at 2:15pm, “Afire” (a German drama known as “Roter Himmel”) and stayed till midnight for a documentary screening (“A Disturbance in the Force”). Thankfully, I had a couple hours of break time in the late afternoon, since I had already seen the film that was playing at that time, which provided for a chance to walk around a grab some nearby sustenance with fellow film enthusiasts. The vast difference between these two films should be a prerequisite for any film festival and confirms that CCFF, in its 10th year, is doing it right.

Christian Petzold is a writer/director who has consistently made interesting and engaging dramas. His first feature was back in 2000 with “The State I Am In”, but I hadn’t started watching his films until “Barbara”, which was  Germany’s submission to the  nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, but didn’t wind up making the shortlist, yet it did win the Silver Bear Award at that the the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival (BIFF) in February 2012, which is given to the best achievement in directing. That’s exactly what happened at this year’s BIFF, where Petzold was awarded the Silver Bear Award again, this time for “Roter Himmel” aka “Afire”, which hasn’t got a release date yet in the States, but will show up next month at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival. 

American documentary filmmaker Jeremy Coon started out as a producer, involved in 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite”, which became a cult classic and then would go on to co-direct documentaries about how and why certain projects got made, whether they were fan films or made to continue fandom. He partnered with Tim Skousen to helm “Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”, the story about the making of the shot-by-shot remaking of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by three childhood friends, from 1982 to 1989 and then in 2014. It’s a fascinating and charming look at nostalgia, friendship, and fandom. For Coon’s latest documentary, he’s teamed with Steve Kozak for a look at how the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” came to be, which is one of many questions that in-the-know Star Wars fans had about that excruciatingly awful television special.

Below are my thoughts on both of these very different films…



(103 min.)


“Afire” follows writer Leon (Thomas Schubert), who is taking a needed summer holiday with his photographer friend, Felix (Langston Uibel) as they arrive at an isolated house in the woods near the Baltic Sea owned by Felix’s parents. Leon is hoping for solitude to focus on his second book – a project that the insecure and easily annoyed writer is struggling with, along with his default self-centered nature, but certain events occur that indicate that changing venues won’t guarantee a masterpiece.

First, their vehicle dies midway, leaving the duo to walk to the house and putting the “lug” in luggage. When they arrive, Felix realizes that although the house is empty, its clearly occupied as evident the mess they find –  lasagna is left on the kitchen table and underwear is strewn upon a  bedroom floor. It’s more like Goldilocks and the Three Bears than last year’s American horror flick “Barbarian”, but don’t tell Leon that since the situation dismantles the tranquil setting he had hoped for. It becomes clear that Leon is the kind of guy who would be uncomfortable in just about any situation, whereas Felix is much more flexible, easily able to realign himself to any change that’s around the corner.

The larger hiccup for Leon comes when he meets Nadja (Paula Beer, a frequent collaborator with Petzold) a woman who Felix’s mother has invited to stay at the house. Before he meets her in-person, he hears her on his first night in the throngs of some loud and passionate sex thanks to thin walls. This woman must be inconsiderate, but once Leon meets her he sees her as the free spirit that she is. While Leon is internally perplexed and enamored by her, he can’t seem to find any way to write even though he turns down any invite to relax and enjoy in the location’s nearby pleasures like swimming, claiming any of that would take away from his “work”.

When Nadja’s lover, local buff lifeguard, Devid (Enno Trebs), shows up, the situation gets worse for Leon, while Felix embraces yet another unexpected presence. With now four adults under one roof, hilarious situations occur that usually stems from Leon’s expected grumpiness as he watches the other three embrace opportunities to connect, like cooking and sharing a meal together or walking to the nearby beach. All the while, there are reports of potential forest fires developing in the nearby forest, something which may or may not eventually force these characters to come together.

Petzold writes Leon as a fascinating miserable character. He’s someone oblivious to his own shortcomings, often blaming others for his lack of productivity and/or talent, Yet there’s an undeniable sympathy with the way in which Schubert portrays Leon. He’s a jerk, but he’s also pathetic and  relatable in that his social anxiety and discomfort in his own skin is relatable. He also doesn’t know what to do with Nadja’s kindness as she winds up being someone who is his exact opposite. He’s attracted to her, but doesn’t know how to be around her.

The danger of the nearby fire is not lost on the drama that develops within this unlikely foursome. The skies go from bright red-orange to showing an eventual sprinkling of ash, a clear sign that a threat is eminent and will push these characters out of the comfort of their secluded home. For Leon, things get more complicated when his publisher, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), arrives to check on his progress and winds up forming a kinship with Nadja. All five of them will unexpectedly be faced with the fragility of life, something that leads to something of an awakening for slow-learning Leon.

“Afire” is an engaging character-study within a story that found me contemplating whether or not I’m appreciating where I am at any given moment in life, even if I feel annoyed or inconvenienced. How am I handling the inevitable and unforeseeable changes of life?

RATING: ****






(85 min.)


Remember that time Han Solo went out of his way to get his pal Chewbecca back to his Wookie home planet of Kashyyyk in time to celebrate Life Day?  You know, they evaded the Empire and Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Threepio & Artoo all helped out. That’s where we met Chewie’s father Itchy, his wife Malla, and his son, Lumpy. No? Well, maybe “A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened” will jog your memory.

Yes, that’s the long title of Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s amusing and detailed documentary. It’s appropriately titled for those Star Wars fans who never knew about the Star Wars television special that aired on CBS for one night on November 17, 1978, before either of these directors were born. Now, if you’re a Star Wars fan who knows about this oddity then it’s quite possible you’re old enough to remember seeing it live. I’m old enough, but I only remember snippets, primarily how the fan-favorite character bounty hunter Boba Fett was introduced first here in animated form. “A Disturbance in the Force” touches on that and reiterates how that segment was the only cool and watchable part of this bizarre failure.

Eventually, I saw it after purchasing a VHS copy at a comic book convention years ago as an adult. Like so many versions that fans would ironically purchase, it was a copy of a copy of a copy of a recording off of the original television run. The only thing I loved about my copy is that it had the commercials intact from back in the day, including local ones from Baltimore, making the cringy viewing experience even more nostalgic. I have no idea what happened to that copy and I’m fine with that.

“A Disturbance in the Force” sets out to answer questions that have plagued those aware of this galactic debacle for years…primarily, “How Did That Get Made?” (There’s irony in that question, considering the co-host of the show “How Did That Get Made?”, comedian/actor Paul Sheer, is one of several talking heads in the documentary who comment on the how and why of it all.)

Coon and Kozak understand that context will help answer that question and (hopefully) many others, but viewers will still have many head-scratching moments while watching the documentary, in between laugh-out-loud guffaws. The documentary explains and indeed confirms that it was a different time for pop culture and the surprising blockbuster success of a movie (or even the definition of the term blockbuster) in theaters. Television was also a completely different thing back in 1978, filled with variety shows that were cheesy even for their time…like really bad (again, I was there for it and can attest).

Long before the 24/7 social media and internet coverage – where any piece of entertainment is saturated onto our feed – the only way of knowing if a movie was a success was by its box office. No one was prepared for the immense global success of this independent space fantasy, especially the creator of it all: George Lucas. When the first “Star Wars” was released in May 1977, there were no toys and hardly any merchandizing available since no one knew how the movie would be received. But, once it became the biggest box office success of its time, 20th Century Fox wanted to look at every possible way they could prevent all the excitement from dying down. All the toys that would eventually fly off the shelves wouldn’t be ready until Christmas that year – and boy do I remember that vividly.

So, at that point in time, with variety shows being consumed the way reality shows are now, we would see Star Wars pop up in some of the weirdest ways. Probably one of the most ridiculous appearances of Star Wars was on an episode of the Donny & Marie show in September of 1977, where Donny Osmond & Marie Osmond would dress up as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leis, respectively, for a handful of cheezeball musical numbers (one song was a cover of The Temptations “Get Ready”), and Kris Kristofferson dressed as Han Solo…not to be missed was Paul Lynde as an Imperial officer alongside someone in a Darth Vader costume. It was as ridiculous as it sounds…see for yourself.  

Donny Osmond also appears in the documentary and admits that variety special looks silly now, but at the time it was so cool. No, Donny, it wasn’t. I was there. He also shared how stoked his brothers were to dress up as dancing stormtroopers. Ugh. Interestingly enough, Osmond shares later on in the doc how he’s come to embrace bad choices and how such failures serve to motivate and make changes, suggesting that maybe Lucas should also embrace the “Holiday Special”. Oooo, I don’t know, Donny.

As Coon and Kozak get into how the “Holiday Special” came about, it becomes clear that it was always going to be more a variety show as opposed to some kind of additional Star Wars material to hold fans over. That’s mostly because those involved in writing the show, from the script to the songs, had no connection to the movie and really only had experience in television programs that had laugh tracks and musical numbers.

For example, husband and wife team, Ken Welch and Mitzie Welch, who co-produced and wrote songs for the show, had worked on the Barbara Streisand Special in 1973  and countless Carol Burnett Show episodes. In what world would such a resume translate to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? Well, look at the rest of the writers…there was comedy writer, Pat Proft, who wrote for the Smothers Brothers (and eventually the Zucker Brothers) as did Rod Warren, and then there’s Bruce Vilanch (who shows up in this doc), who wrote for a handful of variety shows and eventually for the Academy Awards telecasts. Indeed, these are not the kind of talent you want writing anything Star Wars related, at least if you want it taken seriously.



Canadian producer David Acombe was chosen by Lucas to direct the CBS special, having been a USC film school classmate of his. But, he left after realizing there were just too many creative differences between him and the television writers and producers. He left the project after finishing a few scenes, like the Mos Eisley cantina musical number (ladies and gentleman, Bea Arthur!) and the song by Jefferson Starship. During the subsequent prescheduled pause in shooting he was replaced by Steve Binder.

Coon and Kozak remind us that the years between “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” was untraveled territory, like a blank slate. It really wasn’t until the toys from Kenner and comic adaptations from Marvel came out, and then the first sequel was released, that Lucas, the studio, and the world saw that Star Wars would change the world.

For fans of the first movie, anything that had Star Wars slapped on it would be devoured, but no one could anticipate something this bad. Sure, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, were in it, but if those actors felt out of place there (which is exactly how they looked) then something was definitely wrong. In the following years, none of those actors would be thrilled about discussing the special. If interviewers brought it up, there would be dirty looks (Ford), and eye roll (Fisher) or a heavy sigh (Hamill).

One of the many oddities about the “Holiday Special” are how television celebrities of the day wound up on the show for comedy sketches or strange musical numbers. The aforementioned Bea Arthur plays the barkeep at the cantina and winds up dancing with Walrus Man, as she sings ”Goodnight, but Not Goodbye” and ending up at a table next to some giant rat (which was a reused from a low-budget sci-fi flick “The Food of the Gods”, which we learn in this doc). Harvey Korman plays three different characters – a goofy barfly who drinks through a hole in the top of his head, a four-armed chef (as a Julia Child parody, of all things), and a malfunctioning android. Of course, in a clip from a while back, Korman states he recalls very little of the production. Not surprised. If that’s not odd enough, there’s a scene where Itchy tries on a VR headset which is gifted from a trader played by Art Carney and winds up plugged into a fantasy tune sung by Diahann Carroll (Cher was unavailable) as she invites the elderly Wookie to “experience” her…WHAT??

To be clear, “A Disturbance in the Force” isn’t just making fun of the Star Wars Holiday Special”, but rather providing trying to make sense of it all. Many of the talking heads in this doc were involved in the production, while others – the late Gilbert Gottfried, Kevin Smith, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Seth Green, and Taran Killam – are just as flabbergasted as you and I. Overall, the documentary is quite entertaining and informative, and worth checking out to be reminded (or learn) that there was a time when literally anything would be celebrated by fans, even if it was ironically.





More information on this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) can be found here 


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