A story infused with both passion and compassion, “The Aftermath,” starring Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård and Jason Clarke, takes the themes of grief and reconciliation and pushes them through the Melodramizer Machine.
Based on the 2013 book of the same name by Rhidian Brook, most of “The Aftermath” is fiction but the idea of a British soldier sharing his requisitioned house with its former occupants was borrowed from the experience of the author’s grandfather Walter Brook.
Set in Hamburg, Germany five after the close of World War II, the story begins with
British army colonel Lewis Morgan and wife and Rachael (Clarke and Knightley) moving into a large homer requisitioned from German national Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). Lubert, once a wealthy architect, is forced to cede his palatial home to the Morgans while Lewis assists in the post war building of the badly bombed city.
There is much to do. Lewis says Hamburg took more Allied bombs in one weekend than London took during the entire war and there are thousands of bodies still unaccounted for. Conditions are deplorable. Families living in camps fashioned around old, burned out buildings. No water, heat or electricity. Taking pity of Lubert, Lewis offers the former homeowner the chance to stay in the house. “It’s chaos out there,” Lewis says. “There’s no where to put them. Nothing to feed them. It makes no sense to put the Luberts out.”
Rachael isn’t keen on the idea of sharing the house with their once, sworn enemy. “I thought we’d be together,” she says. “Alone.”
The two families cohabitate, mostly at a distance. “What a house,” says Rachel’s friend (Kate Phillips). “It’s almost worth living with a German!” Stefan, once a wealthy man now relegated to living in the attic of his former home while Rachel and Lewis live downstairs. Everyone is suffering. Lewis and Rachel from the loss of a young son, the victim of a German air raids. Stefan and Freda are still mourning the loss of their wife and mother as they try and acclimatize to the life after the war.
Outside, in Hamburg, tensions are rising. A small group of Nazis in the guise of freedom fighters are stirring up trouble. When Lewis is called away to deal with one of their uprisings Stefan and Rachel form a bond based on a shared sense of loneliness and grief.
“The Aftermath” looks fantastic. Director James Kent has an eye for detail and uses the house almost as a character. The shadowy space on the wall where a portrait of Hitler used to hang looms over the proceedings, its absence helping to set the time and place. Rachel’s interaction with the modernistic Bauhaus Furniture, which she finds so uncomfortable, helps us understand her state of mind.
It’s an interesting canvas on which to paint this story but unfortunately the love story feels torn from the pages of a not-so-steamy Harlequin Romance. Characters change abruptly, hissing one second, cooing the next. Knightley and Skarsgård’s emotional arcs suggest that the thin line between love and hate is even thinner than previously thought. Their love affair is born out of a desire to feel something, not out of actual desire and, as such, is about as steamy as a cold shower first thing on a Monday morning.
Clarke fairs better as the stoic but compassionate army colonel but this isn’t his story. He’s at the center of much of the action but his story of reconciliation is overshadowed by the clumsy melodrama.