“The Aftermath” is a beautifully filmed post World War II drama set in Hamburg. Based on a novel by Rhidian Brook, this film beckons me to read the novel just to see how long it takes to feel any connection to the main character Rachel Morgan. Keira Knightley at first seems like a closed book of shallow needs and prejudiced failings. She has come from London to be with her husband Lewis, who has important work in the British Occupied Zone of Germany as Regional Governor . He is such a good man that actor Jason Clarke may find himself beatified by viewers. The Morgans seemed mismatched in empathy for broken spirits and fallen edifices.
The Elbe flows and we learn more. Both Rachel and Lewis are in the throes of grief. Their eight-year-old son had been killed in his bedroom in a blitz of German bombing. Lewis buries himself in work, never really asking for details in his son’s death. Subconsciously blaming his wife for not better protecting him, Lewis only in retrospect asks if he suffered. Rachel finds herself wondering about Lewis lack of display of feeling, and identifies with the subsuming grief of the architect whose manor house they inhabit. His wife, Claudine, was also killed in a British fire bombing. He is left with a daughter Freda to raise.
A love triangle develops with the architect, Stephen Lubert, played dashingly by Alexander Skarsgard, who in a lovely scene practices his English in front of a mirror, “ Welcome, please come inside. Let me show you the house.” Lewis has graciously allowed the father and daughter to remain on the estate. They move to the attic rather than to one of the many wings. This keeps them out of the refugee camps and into the daily life if the Morgans. Stephen re-centers vases on tables and takes pride in his home’s furnishings. He is lonely, appreciative, and physically attracted to Rachel, who seems to hate all Germans. She initially rejects his proffered hand shake. A challenge, physical need, and shared grief are motives for the lust to follow. There are foreshadowings of subdued desire with a female nude replacing a portrait if Hitler, a stain that can’t be removed was at first covered up with a lace curtain. Melodramatic coupling ensues after an aggressive kiss. Director James Kent keeps the sex scenes smoldering. The pairing of Knightley and Skarsgard sets up a loyalty and betrayal theme that is resolved at the film’s end.
The marriage of Lewis and Rachel is balanced nicely against the affair. They sleep together, talk of their honeymoon. Lewis is heavy with the compliments, and patient with Rachel’s primping and pouty demeanor. She is at first unhappy with her husband’s suggestion that the Lubert stay. “ I was looking forward to it just being us.” Rachel states, though one knows she would need the staff to carry on. Lewis tells her that “ none of this is as it was supposed to be”. There is chaos out there, and no food. Meanwhile, Rachel complains to the maid that the plants are blocking the light and need to be moved. The staff roll their eyes and talk in metaphors, like “ maggots on bacon”.
The cinematography of Frank Lustig is what you come to see as the superlative in “ The Aftermath”. The blues and golden ochres stay with you, the soft and focused lighting is like poetry. Production designer Sonja Klaus deserves credit, too. My movie partner noticed the German china as a duplicate of her own brought back by her mother in the late forties. Rachel’s seamed stocking are perfectly straight, their son’s maroon sweater frayed just enough, and Rachel’s German so inexact that she calls the maid delicious rather than the meal. Velvet and pearls are Rachel’s regular garb. We wonder why she doesn’t help out in a soup kitchen.
Rachel tells Lewis that he is stifled under all that righteousness, when their bedtime is interrupted, she sarcastically tells him “ to go save Germany”. Privileged selfishness is hard to sanction, yet in the end we understand Rachel better, and it saves the film.
The violence in “ The Aftermath” is fast, yet suspenseful~ a hard combination. We know Lewis is right when he says that it is not war that makes us men. It may be love and forgiveness.
The British opine that the Yanks got the view, the French got the wine, and they got the ruins. The tension sizzles as uprisings flair with hardline Nazis. Occupied zones have been dealt with in other post WWII films, and there are many stories to tell. “ The Aftermath” meshes the pain of war with the psychology of healing. I have trouble seeing Rachel as the best part of Lewis, but that is love for you.