Czech-Shot “The Glass Room,” currently in post-production, is deeply influenced by an aspect of the nation’s history not often spoken about by admirers — its remarkable architecture: For generations, the most treasured buildings were home to tragic events.
The Villa Tugendhat in the eastern province of Moravia, a stunning, poured-concrete dwelling that represents a breakthrough in the functionalist movement of the 1920s, is a prime example: It saw its German Jewish owners, Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, forced to flee the country in the 1930s, just ahead of the Nazi occupation. “This house can be really cold,” says director Julius Sevcik. “And awful. Especially in the winter with all the dead-looking trees.” This unconventional assessment of one of the Czech Republic’s prize modernist gems is a good fit for its unfortunate story. Commissioned by the Tugendhats in 1928, the villa was empty by 1938, when the duo escaped to Switzerland.
After being put to use by the Gestapo as an office, the stark, soaring Mies van der Rohe-designed home — featuring high glass walls that could be lowered and raised at will and an onyx-sided room built to change colors as sunlight warmed it — was, for much of its history, a stables for the Soviets and a state-run physical therapy center.
Sevcik isn’t complaining when he notes the chilling quality of the villa, which nevertheless would have outwardly fit in well if built in the Hollywood Hills, circa 1975. Instead, says the director, filming inside the building, which today stands as a world-class museum to architectural minimalism, offers unique opportunities.
“The Glass Room,” a love story between two women, stars Dutch actress Carice van Houten (“Game of Thrones,” “Valkyrie”) as Hana and Swedish actress Hanna Alström (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) as Liesel. Hana lived in the house as a privileged young woman, but hasn’t seen it for most of her life until she finally returns late in the Cold War era, finding herself drawn not just to the monumental structure but to an old love interest long left behind.
The Tugendhat family’s saga, which inspired Simon Mawer’s 2009 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel “The Glass Room,” from which the film is adapted, lends itself to cinema, says the director. The production was planned for years by Slovak producer Rudolf Biermann, who dreamed of gaining rare access to shoot within the storied structure, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The villa served as a location in 2007’s “Hannibal Rising” but otherwise has been strictly off-limits except to officially approved tours, whose participants are required to wrap their shoes in plastic booties before entering. Cinematographer Martin Štrba (“Sekal Must Die,” “A Prominent Patient”) says his approach to filming in the villa was driven mainly by story — and the need to deliver the film within a given time frame.
Yet he admits his work walks a fine line between intuition and preparation. Adaptability — “momentary inspiration,” he calls it — is as crucial to the look of a film as tight storyboarding. “It means you have to be contantly watchful not only in the preparation of a shot but particularly during its realization,” he explains. “Only in this way can a poem of a picture be created.”
“You have to respect the original wall tonalities, which in this case are pure white, the most inconvenient color for camera technology.”
Martin Štrba, cinematographer
Štrba says that his optimal lens is a fixed 60mm and confesses the choice may be “irrational,” since it creates a faithful picture of characters at the center of the frame and abstractions around the edges caused by a blurred background.
But shooting close to the subjects is a technique well-suited to the limited crew space in the Villa Tugendhat, he adds, where working without a staging wall and no option for longer lenses is part of the game. “You have to respect the original wall tonalities, which in this case are pure white, the most inconvenient color for camera technology.” The bright walls, he adds, make it challenging to maintain dynamic range, deep shadows and light range. Director Sevcik says the effect can be antiseptic, and characters can appear lost.
Štrba notes that filming amid the house’s range of materials and textures — the result of van der Rohe’s obsession with atmosphere — also offers inherent advantages. Few other architects, he says, were as devoted to designing interiors, furniture and decor alike.
The onyx, the leather upholstery and the deer skins “give an image the power of truth and preserve the magic of the house’s original design,” Štrba says. The high ceilings and airy rooms, meanwhile, lend an atmosphere that can appear somewhat remote. They “allow you to arrange scenes,” he says, “as if the actors are moving in someone else’s chess game.”
Considering the checkered history of the Villa Tugendhat, it’s a most apt effect.