Set five months after the Allied victory in Europe in World War II (so, around October 1945), The Aftermath tells the story of British Forces in Germany requisitioning homes in the city of Hamburg, in order to start the process of rebuilding the area. Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachael (Keira Knightley), move to the area to take part in this. The home they are assigned is the sizeable property owned by German widower, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), a construction specialist who never saw battle, and who lives with his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann). The two pairings agree to co-exist, so Lubert is invited to stay, providing he keeps to the top portion of the house. The film makes it clear that this is an uncommon arrangement.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that both Rachael and Stefan are still profoundly affected by grief dating from the war years. Stefan lost his wife in 1943, from the Allied bombing of the city (we are told that Hamburg took more shelling in a single week than London in the entire war). Rachael is unhappy in her marriage, and it is revealed that this dates back to Lewis’s absence after the death of their young son – also killed in a bombing raid. Lewis did not even take the leave entitled to him as a grieving father, leaving himself unavailable to support his heartbroken wife. Their marriage remains punctuated by short separations due to his work, and lived in relative coldness, occasionally brightened up by brief moments of levity. In this environment, Stefan and Rachael find themselves drawn to each other.
In avoiding a number of obvious clichés, The Aftermath ends up a strangely constructed affair. The most obvious missing detail is Rachael and Stefan fighting not to give in to their feelings at any point. They appear to have no interest in each other, then he kisses her simply to try to goad her into evicting him, then it is straight on to a torrid affair. Their feelings for each other are never truly sold as love. It is more about two people, lost in grief, who have almost forgotten what it is to feel the warmth of another’s feelings. Stefan attempts to keep his wife’s memory alive through leaving her physical imprint untouched. He is reluctant to let people play her piano, for example, and where they do he asks that they play gently, as though they may destroy the very evidence of her existence if they engaged too roughly with her footprint on the world.
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Rachael, similarly, is in a marriage where they have forgotten how to talk to each other. In terms of a couple locking up their deep-seated pain, and forgetting how to share with each other, it is reminiscent of the familial relationships in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Much of the reasoning behind the way they interact is not explored by the couple until very late in the film, meaning that the whole point of The Aftermath is very late indeed in coalescing.
While the film is failing to sell the central affair, explore the marriage properly, or really demonstrate its themes, the plot is darting all over the place too. Occupying forces are undertaking a programme of investigating the Germans left in the cities, for their links to the Nazi regime. Much of the film is concerned with the continual return to the theme of Stefan awaiting clearance; something that is exacerbated by a fractious couple of encounters with the officious officer Burnham (Martin Compston).
The character of Freda is caught up in a somewhat inappropriate relationship with an older, Nazi-sympathising male teenager, Albert (Jannik Schümann) – leading to one of the most uncomfortable on-screen kissing scenes in recent memory – with only the final minutes of the films bringing the boy anywhere near our main characters, and then not in a way that is anywhere near as important as the scriptwriters believe.
On a positive note, the film is very well designed. The choice of location for the families to live is a good one; war-torn Hamburg looks realistic and appropriately unpleasant, and the costume design makes the world feel lived in, with a range of eras represented in the choice of furniture, reflecting the fact little-acknowledged in set design that few families go out to buy all household appliances and furniture the same year – usually multiple styles and fashions are present.
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There is a notable lack of chemistry between Clarke and Knightley (has anyone ever had any chemistry with Jason Clarke, apart from an animated ape?), but this ends up serving the film well. The Australian Clarke is convincing as a British Officer, and his repressed take on the role does, for most of the film, hint at hidden wells of pain and anger. Sadly, when called upon to show his pain, he is more along the lines of Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle: despite a couple of swear words let loose, he comes off as easily beaten and somewhat lacking in any real fight or passion.
Skarsgård and Knightly share decent chemistry, with loves scenes between them handled sensitively by director James Kent. This is undermined by the fact that their first encounter does come out of nowhere, and the film just does not sell any repressed interest. Similarly, the characters don’t for one moment fight their instincts. The first time it occurs to them, it becomes an immediate full-blown affair. Either something has been lost in the edit, or something very important was missing from the shooting script.
The Aftermath is a curiosity. A well-acted, well-designed, and nicely shot film, but a film with no real sense of purpose. The very final scenes outline what Rachael has learned from the events of the movie, and there is an attempt to draw everything together. In the event, however, this is a film that sits there with no clear rationale for its premise, or its themes. It is not clear at all what Kent would like us to take away from this. All we can say for certain is that Skarsgård should be a bigger star, Knightly is a better actress than often credited, Jason Clarke is a charisma vacuum, and James Kent has a lovely eye for intimate moments between human beings. Well-made but entirely inessential, The Aftermath is an easy watch, but an empty experience.