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Film Review: ‘The Affair’ is an Intimate, Yet Fragmented Look into the Unseen Costs of War

Julius Sevcik’s The Affair follows the lifelong journey of two best friends in Europe, embarking on adulthood and family life amidst the impending rise of Hitler’s Third Reich. Newlyweds Liesel and Viktor Landauer build a beautiful home, entirely unaware at the time that Nazis entering Czechoslovakia are about to change everything. The film tells of the separate journeys of Liesel and her best friend Hana as they attempt to navigate their own unique familial struggles within the context of a world that becomes increasingly dangerous for both of them, as wives of Jewish men. Concurrent with the tales of their families and journeys is the story of the deep bond and enduring love the women share for each other, no matter what else they go through or where their lives take them. 

The Affair is intriguing in the relationship between its personal and historical plots. While films set in Hitler’s Europe tend to focus on the Holocaust, concentration camps, or battlefronts, this film is unique in its commitment to only the personal and human stories it tells. This cannot be called a Holocaust film or a World War Two film. The Affair allows world events to exist as pervasive, constant considerations in the background of everyday life. This film brings to light the reality that amidst terror and war and a changing, dangerous world, life goes on. Marriages suffer strain, people build homes, bank accounts and summer homes and childcare and dinner plans must all still be considered. This film is firmly a story of two women, their families, their struggles, and their enduring love. Hanna Alstrom and Carice Van Houten each deliver stunning performances as Liesel and Hana, both shining in quiet, introspective, heartbreaking moments of their own and in the intimacy they develop in their scenes together. The war and its danger is only one aspect of the full lives they live together and apart. 

While The Affair does not focus on the political and wartime climate as its own plot point, it informs every step of Hana and Liesel’s story. We see, through the strain put on their individual identities, their relationship, and the opportunities missed in their lives, that the casualties of war go far beyond the literal and the quantifiable. Families are separated, jobs are lost, homes are abandoned, citizens spend years in exile. Through Hana and Liesel’s intertwining narratives, and the interactions they have with others who are struggling to survive, the realities of the war’s far-reaching and profound impact on individuals becomes very real and very human. In this sense, The Affair is a deeply moving study on the domestic side of war–the losses suffered by those forced to endure war as their constant background while they try to simply go about their lives.

Although it includes some compelling and heart wrenching character studies, The Affair struggles to establish time and place. Viewers may find themselves scouring backgrounds of scenes, hallways, and rooms in an attempt to find a clue to ground themselves in the context and setting of each scene. The directing is undoubtedly visually beautiful, casting the house in turns as sleekly modern or forlornly forgotten, as the film progresses through the decades. Director Sevcik’s choices in lighting, color, and particularly which room of the house to place each scene allows the house to come to life not just as a backdrop, but as a part of the story. The “Glass Room” titular to the Booker short-listed novel on which the film is based adds a particular visual opulence which contrasts with the wistful scenes it is home to. The Landauer home itself becomes a character, changing as time passes and grounding audiences in a location we know. The home, meant to be a cornerstone for the Landauer family to grow and thrive, instead becomes the directorial centerpiece and ever-present witness for the trials of Liesel and Hana. The structure of the film is fleeting, moving abruptly between the storylines of the two women, and hurtling forward through time without warning. In managing to capture the vast scope of two women’s adulthoods, viewers may lose touch with the small nuances of the characters’ experiences. The broad brushstrokes and intimate characterizations are stunning, but the pace and jumps through time can be disorienting.

As a holistic product, The Affair suffers from a lack of clarity on the passage of time and space. Viewers will unfortunately be pulled away from the intimacy of the acting and character development to attempt to reorient themselves in the year and location of each new scene as it comes. The film’s strengths are commendable, but as a story it can feel lacking in cohesive development. In spite of the struggle to remain immersed in the film from scene to scene, the characters and their love for each other are compelling. The acting performances are beautiful, containing stunning monologues and silent, intimately introspective scenes. The struggles of the characters seem to matter, in no small part thanks to the message that the costs of war extend in sweeping scope across countries, decades, and entire lives–often in deeply individual and personal ways that cannot be seen from the outside. 

SCORE: ★

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Written by Casey Tinston

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