JDIFF Review – Haus Tugendhat

Built in Bron, in the 1930s, the Tugendhat villa is a house that is steeped in history. Filmmaker Dieter Reifarth examines the story of the Tugendhat family, who the house was built for and the various incarnations the house has gone through.

Although Haus Tugendhat starts off feeling like an experimental, avant garde film where voiceover praises and examines the fascination with this building, the story is quickly revealed. This shining example of Modern architecture was created by Mies van der Rohe to be a family home. Although the Tugendhat family only lived there for eight years before the threat of World War II meant they had to leave the Czech Republic for Switzerland, the house is firmly rooted in their history and, to some extent, their identity.

Through interviews with the Tugendhat family, art historians and architectural preservationists, as well as many other people who passed through the building after the family moved on, director Reifarth reveals the incredible history of both the building, the family it is named after and the tragic fates suffered both by the home that has fascinated those who come in contact with it, and the people who left it behind. While the film is the story of a Jewish family in Cezchoslovakia – as it was then – in the 1930s, it is also a remarkable story of how a family home came to be used by the Gestapo, as a rehab centre for children with ailments under Russian rule, and as the site where Czechoslovakia was formally dissolved.

As an architectural gem – now protected by UNESCO – the house itself is examined; the family asked for a simple home that consisted of five bedrooms, but by employing architect Mies, they ended up with a home designed to positively affect those who lived there. The house has fascinated people since it was built; neighbours are interviewed about their wonder at being allowed into this house that was not only designed, but furnished by the architect whose care and attention to detail went from the glass used in the famous retractable windows, to the doorknobs and the fabled onyx wall. Later in it’s life, once it had served it’s political use, the house was featured in film and TV, and the Tugendhat family reveal their upset at the house – and the family – being used as inspiration for the novel The Glass House.

Reifarth blends the story of the family who fled for their lives with the history of the home they left behind, drawing parallels between them and also allowing a building that could be seen as austere and uninviting to be revealed as a warm and inviting place. The house seems to have lingered with the family who only lived there for a short time; the house was a haven for them before they had to flee for their lives and it has lasted in their memories as a place filled with nostalgia but also as a part of their identities. Oddly though, it seems to be the family members who never lived there that have the strongest affiliation with the house. In weaving the stories together, Reifarth draws some interesting parallels, but in trying to track the fate of the house after the war, the film becomes slightly jumbled and the pacing slows down.

Haus Tugendhat is a film that examines the notion of home and the building that becomes home, as well as the historical focus that the villa became. The film is as messy as the story itself, but the film falters when the focus shifts from the house. Still, there is little doubt that the Tugendhat Villa is one that has captured the imaginations of many and has a unique story to tell.

Rating: 3/5

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