Monday, March 01, 2021

The Affair, Based on Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room

Villa Tugendhat is like Czechia’s Falling Water House. Designed by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, it was the happy home of the Tugendhat family, who did not move out voluntarily. However, they managed to leave Czechoslovakia in the nick of time, avoiding the worst of the German occupation. Understandably, the children of the Tugendhats were not entirely thrilled when Simon Mawer used their family home to create a fictional “fantasia” about a much more dysfunctional family. Similarly, they weren’t too crazy with the news of a film adaptation of Mawer’s novel (Mies’ heirs might not be ecstatic either), but here it is regardless. The tragic history of the Czech Republic unfolds alongside Mawer’s made-up melodrama in Julius Sevcik’s English-language Czech-production The Affair, which releases this Friday on VOD.

In this alternate reality, Viktor Landauer built Villa Tugendhat as a wedding gift for his bride Liesel, who is crazy about modernist architecture. However, even he balks at the expenses run up by the renowned architect Von Abt, especially the red marble he installs. Still, Viktor must admit the way it glows when the sun rises really is quite amazing. Liesel’s best friend Hana Hankova is so struck by the villa, she takes Von Abt as a lover, even though he isn’t a very good one. Frankly, she would rather love Liesel, but her married friend is not ready to go there yet.

Sadly, the war will separate them before they can fully workout their issues. Likewise, Viktor Landauer will carry the baggage of his dalliances with the nanny, another possible affair the flawed international title could refer to. Recognizing the writing on the wall, the Jewish Landauers manage to leave on one of the last
Casablanca-style flights out. Hanakova and her Jewish husband are not so lucky. To protect him, she becomes the mistress of Stahl, a military contractor, who has requisitioned the villa to serve as a drafting workshop (another affair, but not exactly one freely entering into).

The first half of
The Affair really is melodramatic (to the point of cheesiness). However, the second half becomes much more compelling, focusing on Hanakova as she navigates the National Socialist occupation and the subsequent Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia. Through her eyes, we see the decline of the nation, as reflected by the deterioration of the Villa (that eventually becomes host to squatting black marketeer). Frankly, the aspects of the film that work the best really do not require Mawer’s controversial meta-fictionalization of the Tugendhat family. Anyone from the era could relate to the Villa as a symbol of past glory.

Carice van Houten is indeed very strong as Hanakova. She brings strength to the modern Czech woman, even as she endures the indignities of consecutive occupations. She is sort of revisiting her role in
Black Book, but Hanakova is arguably more human, being a flawed but protective wife and eventually a fiercely loving mother. She is also critical to the biting scenes that set up the 1968 Soviet invasion.

On the other hand, Hanna Alstrom and Claes Bang are problematically bland as the Landauers. It is hard to figure why so many people in their orbit seem to swoon over this boring couple. However, Roland Møller really helps crank up the intensity as the cruel and debased (but maybe slightly remorseful at the end) Stahl.

Of course, the greatest star of
The Affair is the Villa Tugendhat, where the film was largely shot on-location. Now restored to a state close to its original glory, Mies’s house looks absolutely glorious on-screen. You can get the real story of the home and its original occupants in Dieter Reifarth’s documentary.

Screenwriter Andrew Shaw’s adaptation has its merits, but the parts that rewrote the Tugendhat family history really are not worth the angst they caused. The house is definitely a potent symbol, but the drama is hit or miss. Earning a half recommendation (wait for it to appear on a subscription streaming site),
The Affair releases this Friday (2/5) on VOD.