In 1928, Fritz Tugendhat and his new wife Grete — both German-born Jews — commissioned architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich to build them a glass house on a hilltop in the city of Brno, Czechoslovakia. The Villa Tugendhat was to be a new home for a new Europe: sleek, spare, and open to the light of the outside world. Its functionalist principles expressed the hope for a future without secrets or self-denial, and its long glass walls reflected the freedoms that Grete expected to define the rest of the 20th century. Less than 10 years later, the Tugendhats were forced to flee in the looming shadow of a Fascist occupation. Czechoslovakia became the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Villa Tugendhat was turned into the local offices of the Messerschmitt corporation, which engineered much of Hitler’s air force. History is not as easy to design as a blueprint. Neither — Julius Ševčík’s achingly inert “The Affair” contends — is the human heart.
Adapted from Simon Mawer’s bestselling 2009 novel “The Glass Room” and true to the fictional story it constructs atop a foundation of onyx-solid historical fact, Ševčík’s admirably peculiar movie remains a fascinating chimera of an idea even if the finished product is as empty as the house that inspired it. In this telling, the Tugendhats are recast as the ultra-photogenic Viktor Landauer (Claes Bang) and his intensely Aryan wife Liesel (Hanna Alström), and the architect they hire to build their dream house is a horny old German by the name of Rainer von Abt (Karel Roden). When Liesel laughs off his clumsy advances, Rainer turns his attentions to her gorgeous and undomesticated best friend Hana (Carice van Houten), a lonely woman ahead of her time who only tolerates the male interest she inspires because Liesel isn’t ready to love her back — at least not with the openness that living in a glass house requires.
The house is the only character in “The Affair” actually borrowed from history, and the Villa Tugendhat plays itself with the same degree of steeled grace that it’s brought to the part through all manner of upset over the last 93 years, delivering the best performance in a film that offers stiff competition from the indomitable van Houten and a softly brutish Roland Møller (who plays the tortured Nazi-funded engineer who moves in once the Landauers have been chased out). The house certainly has the most detailed role to play, and none of the human characters’ relationships with each other are as warm or well-drawn as the nostalgia they have for that retro-futuristic marvel of glass, concrete, and stone. “It knows us,” van Houten intones of the villa during an opening voiceover whose distant hardness anticipates the ossified melodrama to come. “Watching as we grow old, a mirror to our youths. Pulling us back. Our center. Our gravity.”
If only “The Affair” found any other forces at work in its strained and threadbare story of love stretched across time. The most glaring design flaw is that Ševčík — working from a script by Andrew Shaw — never establishes if his film belongs to the house, or to the various people who move through it over the years. He opts instead to suggest that they all belong to each other, a romantic idea undone by the noncommittal nature of his approach. Introductory close-ups of the windows and walls study the architecture the way that other movies lavish their attention on faces, lending the inanimate structure a certain feeling of subjectivity (the images we see reflected in the thick glass don’t feel like tricks of the light so much as they do the villa’s private memories). But “The Affair” doesn’t trust in that perspective, and the film’s major conceit is soon diluted by the woefully underwritten soap opera the Landauers bring when they move in; a revolving-door romance that’s never sudsy enough to compensate for all of the possibilities it scrubs away.
The furtive same-sex love story at the heart of “The Affair” never finds a heartbeat, which proves to be an insurmountable problem. Van Houten lends Hana a kiln-like heat in the early scenes when she’s trying to forge a more intimate bond with her best friend, but Liesel is a virtual non-entity whenever she’s not being a stuck-up priss, and the film doesn’t give Alström a decent chance to reconcile Liesel’s progressive aesthetics with her sexual naïveté. If anything, she just comes off like a stuck-up rich girl who lacks the sensitivity to register the depths of Hana’s affection for her.
We let it slide when she brushes off the Holocaust with a common “it can’t happen here,” and some viewers might not even flinch when Liesel decrees that her incredible new house is “very pleasant as long as I don’t have to wash the windows,” but the haughty attitude she displays about the wood mansion her family escapes to abroad is almost as hard to overlook as the cruelty with which she feeds her husband’s mistress to the gestapo. In other words, Liesel sucks, to the extent that the restrained gestures typical of gay period stories don’t seem deep with unspoken emotion so much as they do a reflection of a woman who doesn’t have any emotional depth.
And yet “The Affair” insists that Liesel should be its main character for so long that it essentially has to start from scratch once Hana comes to the fore and finds herself pulled back to the house by an almost supernatural force. In a movie that comes teasingly close to focusing on any one of the ideas it flirts with along the way, none of those aspects is more intriguing or less sufficiently examined than Hana’s yearning to return to her pre-war idyll at any cost.
Van Houten leans all the way into a character caught between her hope for the future and her heartache over the past, and it’s so wrenching — at least in theory — to watch this woman ensconce herself in this house of lost things as if it were a snow globe built to contain them for her. Sometimes that means sleeping with the enemy, and sometimes it means performing a silent protest to her countrymen, but it always means less than it should because the film around her has been spread thin to the point that even the Villa Tugendhat starts to feel like a set. While “The Affair” rather adamantly insists that life doesn’t adhere to the idealized cleanliness of modern design, this hollow adaptation also never allows itself to share in the forward-thinking courage of its architecture.
“The Affair” is now available to rent on VOD.
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