How much can be rebuilt after it has been smashed to pieces? That’s the big question in The Aftermath – a postwar love story that attempts to to examine the realities of reconciliation, whether between people or countries.
The film is about rebuilding broken relationships as much as broken cities, with the ambiguities of war bubbling up in parallel to those in a marriage.
It’s 1946, and Rachel Morgan’s British army colonel husband Lewis (Jason Clarke) has been posted to Hamburg to help with the post-war rebuilding. She joins him, arriving by train, and their tentative, somewhat embarrassed greeting tells you all you need to know about the distance still between them.
They’re moving into a large detached house owned by widowed German architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who lives there with his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). The house has been requisitioned by the British, and the Luberts are meant to be moving to a camp; but Lewis, on the surface the most open to rapprochement, asks them to stay on, living in the attic rooms.
It’s not a situation Rachael (Keira Knightley) is happy with, and the house seethes with just-supressed animosity.
Outside, Hamburg’s citizens, still traumatised by wartime firebombing, are increasingly enraged at their treatment; while Nazis hidden in their midst are fomenting dissent and painting themselves as German freedom fighters. It’s an enticing movement for the unworldly, motherless Freda.
Despite Rachael’s attempts to set boundaries to where Stefan can go, he’s regularly appearing downstairs and soon they’re having an affair. He understands loss in a way she thinks Lewis can’t – her relationship with her husband is rarely spontaneous, and the dark shadow of their son’s death hangs over them.
Director James Kent regularly introduces little shocks. Fellow army wife Susan (Kate Phillips) points out to Rachael that she and Lewis aren’t the only ones to have a big empty space above the fireplace where a picture once hung. Stefan told Rachael it was a landscape – Susan reveals that’s where they all hung their picture of the Führer. (Susan is less a friend and more an early warning system about what people really think and know.)
And everywhere are reminders of the violence that has been committed, highlighting problems with Lewis’s overly-simplistic approach. A couple, burnt beyond recognition, are found in each other’s arms as the rubble from Allied bombing raids is slowly dug away. Photographs from the concentration camps show twisted bodies piled up. Despite Stefan’s claim that it is now “Year Zero” and they can all start afresh, the war is something that needs to be discussed and unpicked.
There’s an interesting moment when Susan is leaving after a dinner party, brought to a premature end by an altercation between Stefan and Susan’s husband, Burnham (Martin Compston). Both women apologise to the other as they leave, for the behaviour of the men.
Rachael’s clothes are to die(t) for: twinsets, fitted coats and gorgeous satin and velvet evening wear, outfits as neatly ordered as her marriage. Stefan moves from suits and thin sweaters to the blue cotton workwear of a man now working in a factory. Lewis is still buttoned up, literally, in his army uniform.
The house itself is filled with the most stylish 30s and 40s furniture – Rachael, holed up in a continuous loop of grief and emotional silence, seems both baffled and terrified by the change it signifies (there’s a sweet scene where she has a run-in with a squidgy modernist chair which sums up her straight-backed Britishness).
There’s a big contrast between the quiet, calm house and what’s happening outside, from rioting Germans to bombed out buildings. Kent opens the film with some astonishing shots from above (CGI presumably), representing the bigger picture. Blackened broken walls stick into the sky, the roofless rooms filled with rubble. The scale of the task ahead is unfathomable, a situation easy to get lost in. The movie too seems to lose its way for a time, in terms of how reconciliation can be achieved, and when.
And while The Aftermath is a truly beautiful-looking film – from the stark city streets to the sun pouring into attic bedrooms to the furniture and clothes – it takes an absolute age to get going. The Nazis-in-our-midst subplot becomes increasingly melodramatic, and Rachael’s turnaround rather trite. It’s also obvious what’s going to happen right up to and including the last scene.
We know Rachael and Stefan’s affair is coming too, though it actually launches at us rather unexpectedly – thankfully after their supremely uncomfortable first kiss (for us and them) their attraction feels real. Sex, on the dining room table with Rachael keeping her velvet dress on but removing her pearls, bubbles with a charge more desperate than erotic, which fits with both of their situations.
Knightley is very mannered, and while to an extent it fits with the mask Rachael has to wear, it often looks as if every millisecond of her changing expression has been pre-planned. Still, she does ensure that Rachael is the more sympathetic character from the off, despite her approach to reconciliation initially being seen as old-fashioned and unhelpful.
Clarke is excellent, portraying a man who appears at the start to be clinging to a simplistic view of how reconciliation with Germany and its rebuilding can work – until he’s forced to look at both the bigger picture and the nuances of post-war life.
For most of the movie I didn’t find Lewis remotely likeable, his stoicism leading to the woman in his life bearing the brunt of his emotional reticence as well as her own. Yet near the end, entirely broken down and finally acknowledging the depths of both his pain and his mistakes, he’s incredibly moving. It’s only then that reconciliation can really begin.
Check out cast interviews and featurettes or watch the trailer for The Aftermath below: