Directed by: James Kent
Written by: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke
War films always capture the heroics of battle and what led up to the bloody affairs, but picking up the pieces afterward does not get explored as frequently. By taking place in a former Nazi-occupied area of Hamburg, The Aftermath shows what it meant to be a bystander during the Nazi regime and how the loss of life deeply impacted everyone involved.
Rachel Morgan (Keira Knightley) has been awaiting the opportunity to finally be with her husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), as he serves colonel for the British Armed Forces. The war finally ends and just when she thinks she has her husband all to herself, the reality settles in when must move into a house in Hamburg. Houses of Nazi sympathizers were occupied by the winning armies and Lewis allows the family, whose house they take over, to stay. The family includes Stefan (Alexander Skarsgard) and his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). Each of them reacts to the British couple taking over their house in a different way. As events tense up, a connection between Rachel and Stefan sparks up as they grieve from the losses of war.
This film centers on grief and the different ways in which we all cope with it. Rachel’s excitement of finally being alone with her husband after the war stems from finally being able to grieve the loss of their son, who died during a German blitz. Rachel needs to be with him, and Lewis attempts to deflect his feelings about the manner, which informs why he lets Stefan and Freda stay in the house. Grief creates the spark that eventually connects Rachel to Stefan as the latter lost his wife during the bombings as well. What started as Rachel having resentment for anyone associated with Germany because of the death of her son turns into a sexual relationship in search of emotional connection and solidarity.
While the theme of grief runs through the entire film, The Aftermath goes surface level with much of its thematic explorations. It wanted to touch upon many things but never fully embraces any of them, which the actors cannot hold the blame for. Keira Knightley remains, of course, the queen of period pieces. No one else can rock outfits from any century as she can. Alexander Skarsgard and Jason Clarke were not given much to do except to look sad for the entirety of their time on screen but it does add to the Jason Clarke being cheated on his wife cinematic universe, which has added up to a hefty amount of films. The guy cannot catch a break.
One thing that did surprise me about the film was the way it showed what formerly Nazi-occupied areas looked like after the war ended. An ideology spread far and wide by the Nazi party does not simply disappear because they lost the war and that sentiment shows up throughout the film. Underground groups existed that planned rebellions and would not give up their support for Hitler. These incidents turned into violent affairs that impacted our main set of characters. An aspect of the war that does not get enough attention and adds a fine little layer to the film.
Additionally, a small detail explored during the film illustrates the perception of the whole and how it might not equate to the individual. Just as Hitler demonized the Jewish population by describing them as animals and having horns, it was interesting to see it done to the Germans after the war. Rachel and her other British friends, who happen to be spouses of British Armed Forces officers often jest about the obsession the Germans had with Hitler. Once they described the Germans hoarding the paintings of their leader in order to protect him even after his death. Certainly not on the same level as the hateful rhetoric, of course, but a nice nugget of generalizations laid on a group that rose to power because of such tactics.
Overall, this film landed as a mixed bag for me. It works in some aspects as described above, but as a whole, it fails to fully address its themes. Part of the film’s message loses me when Stefan says he misses his wife to his daughter only to have sex with Rachel in the next scene. The characters outside of Rachel were incredibly bland, despite the nice costume design in the film. The Aftermath fully revolves around Keira Knightley, who never disappoints, but even she could not elevate the film.