A Family Affair – the documentary that's about more than just a creepy grandma

The film explores the complicated nature of personhood

Dutch filmmaker, Tom Fassaert, decides to venture to South Africa following an invitation to visit his paternal grandmother, Marianne Hertz. Although she was a largely absent figure in his childhood, Tom had heard multiple stories about Marianne – and not particularly flattering ones. Known predominantly within the family as the instigator of endless family feuds, Tom felt it was time to get to know his grandmother - now 95 years old - on a personal level, before it's too late.

 

Marianne is hell-bent on preserving the beauty of her youth, and is constantly busy with making herself look more attractive. A former model, being captured photographically is second nature to her – provided she has the control over what she does and doesn’t reveal. It’s her grandson’s unhappy task to dismantle that privilege and disclose his grandmother’s true story, skeletons and all. This, of course, takes time. While Marianne appears to be a sunny and charming woman in the majority of her earlier interviews, it’s not long before a far more sinister side to her character begins to reveal itself.

 

Marianne grew up in Germany, alienated by conservative parents who were desperately trying to hide their Jewish heritage from the Nazis. Later finding herself trapped in an unhappy marriage, she seeks escapism through glamour, parties and new romances, constantly shuffling her two sons in and out of care in an attempt to shirk her responsibility as a mother. Amongst other disappointing decisions in her later life, this leads her to develop a bad reputation in the family. She’s just misunderstood, she explains to Tom. She doesn’t deserve such scorn.

 

The documentary omits Marianne’s specific crimes against the family, presumably so as not to taint our perception of her. What is made evident, however, is her tendency to abandon those she loves. Soon after Tom’s father moves his young family to South Africa, having been promised financial support and a chance to build a relationship with his distant mother, she disappears. Reflecting on this now, she wants to make amends. She wants to rebuild those burnt bridges. She and Tom agree to take a cruise to Holland - her last trip - to reunite with the family, who seem more than willing to forgive her.

 

Marianne flirts outrageously with her grandson, eventually confessing she’s in love with him. “Don’t you like me too?” she inquires, with a wry smile. She later rejects the framed photo of herself with the family, gifted to her by Tom, on the basis that his girlfriend is in it too. ‘You’ve made me very unhappy’, she retorts, jealously.

 

A Family Affair has come to be known among my friends as ‘the one with the creepy grandma’. This is, granted, a well-founded reaction. We can't, however, allow this to obscure our understanding of the deeper commentary that runs beneath the surfaces, most notably pertaining to the complexity of human nature. Marianne does not feel her age, so why should we expect her to act as such? In battling with convention and falling for a younger man, you can't help but begin to empathise with her mindset – particularly in light of her troublesome past. Marianne's personality becomes more distasteful the more we get to know her. But, in slowly revealing the woman behind the mask, the director forces us to reflect on our own façades. What of our characters do we choose to disclose, and what do we choose to hide? 

Finally, in a quiet moment in her cabin on the ship home, she bares her soul. She talks of her upbringing and the effect that had on her ability to mother her children. Although she does show remorse, you can’t help but doubt her sincerity. “Truth?” she scoffs in the final scene, “there’s no such thing.”