The Aftermath (2019)

The Aftermath first published by Sight & Sound, April 2019

Review: James Kent’s The Aftermath occupies a real time and place, while annexing them for more metaphorical purposes. For it is set in a snowy Hamburg, five months after the Allied Victory in 1945, yet when Rachael (Keira Knightley) comes there from England to join her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) as he works to bring order to the postwar chaos, they share space in their requisitioned mansion with its former owner the widowed architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenaged daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). Soon the house is split into zones, the elegantly spacious rooms below and the attic above demarcating the clash of class and culture between its recently opposed and still damaged cohabitants. Likewise the desolate ruins of the city (shown in chilling aerials) and the frigid wintry weather come to reflect the state of the Morgans’ marriage, in tatters since the death, three years earlier, of their 11-year-old son Michael. 

With its motifs of trauma and reconciliation, this is a melodrama of difficult mending. Lewis responded to the loss of Michael by throwing himself ever more into his work and keeping his wife at a distance. Now, as he manages the recovery of burnt bodies and the rebuilding of the fire-bombed city, he is attempting to atone for his own wartime actions (including the killing of Nazi child soldiers), while also seeking a rapprochement with Rachael. Yet Rachael – feeling neglected and still in mourning – finds her initial hatred of the Germans thawing in the warm embrace of her equally grieving host Stefan, until soon the adulterous pair are making plans for a new life together (in a modernist home that Stefan hopes to build, far away from Hamburg and Lewis). Here the postwar yearning for a restored past or a better future is expressed in erotic terms, and Rachael’s choice between going back to Lewis or moving on with Stefan is reflected in events all around them – for, even as Lewis’ great empathy for his one-time enemies holds out the possibility of a new relationship between these two war-torn nations, there is a resurgence of Hitler-worshipping terrorism among the local youth. 

Timing is everything. The Aftermath has been adapted from a 2013 novel of the same name by Rhidian Brook, who also helped Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse with the film’s screenplay – but coming out in the aftermath of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, at a time when Britain is once again having to renegotiate its connections to the Continent, the film becomes as much an allegory of Brexit as was Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour (2017), even if the commentary here is more nuanced and altogether less rousingly jingoistic. For as Rachael finds a place for herself in her new European household, she is also working out her relationship with her husband – at times bitter and full of mutual recrimination, but also founded on a history of love – and her only alternatives are to leave or to remain. In the end, Rachael must choose one path, but it is for the viewer to determine whether her decision – and her country’s – is the right accommodation. 

Synopsis: Hamburg, winter of 1945. Rachael arrives to join her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan, who is working on rebuilding the firebombed city. They stay in a huge requisitioned house – and to Rachael’s annoyance, Lewis insists that the former residents, widowed architect Stefan Lubert and his teenaged daughter Freda, stay on in the attic. The death three years earlier of the Morgans’ young son Michael has left a chill in their relationship, and Lewis is too busy for a reconciliation. Lonely Rachael drifts towards Stefan, whose wife was similarly killed in a bombing – even as Freda falls in with homeless young Nazi guerrilla Albert. With Lewis called away for work over Christmas, Rachael and Stefan embark on an affair. Stefan invites Rachael to move away with him to a new house that he will build. Rachael approaches Susan Burnham, the wife of one of Lewis’ colleagues, to expedite the approval of Stefan’s travel permit. Lewis returns, and hearing from Susan’s husband that Rachael intervened on Stefan’s behalf, realises that she is sleeping with Stefan. Confronting Rachael at a party, Lewis heads home with her – but en route, their young driver is shot dead by Albert. Fleeing Lewis’ arrest, Albert falls into a frozen lake. The next morning, Rachael heads to the train station with Stefan and Freda, but changes her mind and returns to Lewis.

© Anton Bitel