I’m getting used to documentaries that cleverly reveal the narrative arc in a bumpy way – Capturing the Friedmans being an archetypal example. This film – A Family Affair – however had a couple of such arresting scenes they are still playing out in my mind a few days later. Tom Fassaert courageously took on the source of huge distress in his family of upbringing – his father’s mother –  who cast such a shadow over her children’s lives, he clearly needed to make more meaning of it before creating his own family with his girlfriend.
We learn early on that Marianne Hertz abandoned her two young boys (Tom’s father and uncle) in a children’s home for a couple of years, only to return and repeatedly abandon them again – psychologically and literally. A daughter was born much later on, but her privacy was respected and we learn little about this relationship. Tom flies to South Africa to meet his estranged ‘Oma’, where she has lived for decades. An unbelievably sharp, spritely and very vain 95 year old, she is apparently willing to participate in a film that explores her shady hinterland. What transpires however, is more of a desire on her part to enjoy as much limelight as she can get – including a rather gut-wrenching belief that her grandson’s interest in her is more than he had bargained for. I don’t want to spoil it too much.
Marianne was, and remains, a spectacular narcissist who refuses to examine her life and the destruction it caused. She almost does on occasions when Tom pushes, but bails each time – it’s a dizzying experience listening to her respond to these exchanges. We do get a glimpse at what could possibly account for her troubling personality when she describes the unbearable pressure borne down on her by her father – an anti-semitic Jew who brought his family to safety from the Nazis in Berlin to Holland. He later rejected his wife for losing her looks, and impressed upon Marianne to keep her good ones up – she became a vaguely famous model in her native Netherlands. Her early enforced marriage after becoming pregnant is glossed over, as is other clearly painful experiences Marianne endured before her first baby arrived (Tom’s uncle Renee, who endured years of living in mental institutions and suffers psychologically to this day).
Trauma has clearly been transmitted through the generations – Tom’s endearing dad seems a broken man at heart, and we are led to believe his divorce after 20 years of marriage is tangled up with his unresolved relationship with his mother. My guess is that this film may serve to ease any further possibility of trauma being passed on – Tom works this through with us as the film unfolds and Marianne’s epic life reaches its end.