Julius Sevcik’s wartime period drama The Affair is the tale of a love affair of two married women and the making of a modernist architectural masterpiece in 1930s Czechoslovakia.
The film (now available on VOD) is based on Simon Mawer’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Glass Room, which is inspired by the history of Villa Tugendhat – the modernist landmark by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich in Czechia’s Brno. The film’s fictional Landauer House is largely shot at Villa Tugendhat and showcases its iconic elements such as its sunlight-lit onyx wall and automated glass walls.
More than just a backdrop in the Vertical Entertainment film, Landauer House mirrors the characters’ entangled lives, first as a symbol of their forward-thinking outlook and aspirations and then their subsequent suffering in exile and in the hands of the Nazis in occupied Czechoslovakia.
Production designer Milan Bycek reveals what it was like filming in Villa Tugendhat’s unique, highly protected rooms and how he set the stage for the drama while making it a starring part.
What research did you undertake to get a feel of Villa Tugendhat and the ideas behind its design?
The Czechia city of Brno (where most of the filming along with Prague takes place) is known for its large number of functionalist buildings designed and built a few years before Villa Tugendhat was constructed, and Brno is proud of them. This is reflected in the fact that this style is taught at the Brno Faculty of Architecture, from which I coincidentally graduated in the 1980s.
At university, we learned about the villa and had the opportunity to visit it with classmates against a backdrop of totalitarianism and the disintegration of cultural values. The regrettable state of the villa at the time reflected the character of the communist regime, which underlined in me the feeling of life despair in a communist state.
Knowledge also came from books and materials that document its history and varying states of condition, of which there is a relatively large number. The villa has always been a sought-after location for photographers, too. A lot of material was also provided to me by my classmates, who collaborated on the renovation of the villa in 2012.
How does the house mirror the lives of the story’s characters?
The phases that the villa went through in the film can be compared to the phases of a human life. For example, the designing of a villa at the beginning of the film is its conception – created out of the love and joy of the newlyweds, an idea arises for a unique approach to define their future nest and they meet with the architect accordingly.
Then there is a symbolic indication of a birth of a new family member – the construction of the house. The next phase is a carefree childhood in a democracy, when the villa looks over Brno and the wonderful child (villa) lives a slow pace as if it wished to stop at these contented times.
As soon as the villa grows up, the political situation rapidly declines, accelerated by the historical events – war, communism, and the Russian invasion of the Czech Republic in 1968. Like some characters, the villa, under the weight of history, begins to suffer. Its resuscitation and healing will take place only after another historical change – the restoration of democracy.
How do the sets convey the experience of being in the house?
The scenes built for the film always had to meet the moods and emotions of the shots being filmed. In addition to scenes where the villa is a clean, illuminated and beautiful space, with reflected rays of light on reflective surfaces, we had to use set design techniques to help the Director of Photography build a gloomy, depressing atmosphere often filmed on sunny days. For example, we used various curtains, window foils, window patina and we also worked with curtains and patinas in the interior.
How did you shot the house’s interior without causing damage to it? And how difficult was this process?
The filming process at Villa Tugendhat was complicated especially because the villa recently went through an expensive renovation and has the highest degree of historical protection as a UNESCO-World Heritage Listed monument – the responsibility was daunting.
We consulted adjustments to the building in detail with the museum director and the entire operational and technical management in terms of what could be done now and what could be done in post-production or how we can avoid some things with the magic of editing or camera angle.
The museum helped us a lot in finding solutions and feasible compromises. One of the modifications done to secure the interior from potential damage was the installation of a whole additional floor, created because of the use of heavy camera technology and also, for example, for the use of heavy drawing boards in the decoration of aircraft design offices during the war.
We have also constructed a protective formwork around the onyx wall and around the large table in the dining room to keep them from being damaged when they are not being used.
What techniques did you use to make the house look run down and water damaged?
The feeling of destruction or construction was a combination of real adjustments in decoration and post-production computer tricks. In particular the filming of the villa interior in its under-construction phase, when there was not yet an onyx wall.
We surrounded it with a construction in green keying colour and it was erased in the shot and replaced with empty space. Water damage was largely created in post-production as well as the broken window after the wartime bomb explosion. We have manufactured an ‘after-the-explosion’ window while the existing window was ‘hidden’ below the floor thanks to the automatic system in place. Other cracks in the windows were painted directly on the glass.
With the exterior shot of an unmaintained ruined garden, we had to cover the existing carefully maintained ornamental garden with our construction and create a feeling of decay on it with the help of mats and weeds.
What was it like spending time in the building? Did it change the way you viewed modern architecture?
I always liked it, even more than the modern contemporary architecture. The time I spent in the villa that was not associated with creative and work excitement was a very pleasant time for me. I had the opportunity to be there undisturbed and just sit back and perceive the light and atmosphere during the day and during the seasons as they have changed.
The range of light atmospheres is endless thanks to the abundance of glazing and the connection of interior and exterior spaces. Much of that feeling of space was mediated to the viewer by the excellent cinematographer Martin Štrba, so the viewer can find himself at least for a while in the Tugendhat villa, experiencing some atmosphere with the film’s leading characters.
What are your favourite parts of the house?
My favourite part of the villa is the ‘glass room’ (part of the study room), located just by the winter garden, which has large flowers facing southeast, where the morning’s sun rays penetrate through these flowers and create a beautiful shadow play as if walking through the forest in the morning.
Another incredible part is the boiler room, which hides a unique technology developed for this house. The technology works as central heating of the house, as an air conditioning cooling unit for hot days and as an air scrubber with coal filters. I also really liked the lower bathroom, where you don’t even need a lot of imagination to imagine how beautiful it would be to take a bath there.
Do the automated windows in the glass room still work in the house?
The original large-scale windows have been destroyed over the years, partially boarded up, shattered into small panels, and its movable plug-in mechanism destroyed. We tried to capture this faithfully in the film according to existing photographs. During its reconstruction in 2012, the windows were replaced with new ones, made according to the originals and the sliding mechanism was refurbished, and they are currently functional.
Does the Onyx wall really glow when the sun rises?
Yes, we waited a few hours for the scene in the film when the onyx wall turns red.
‘The Affair’ is distributed by Vertical Entertainment and was released on Video On Demand on March 5, 2021