It’s hard to think about romance when you’re living in an occupied city that has just been blown to smithereens. James Kent’s The Aftermath is set in Hamburg just after the Second World War. In case the images of rubble-strewn streets are not enough to convey to audiences the extent of the destruction, the screenplay (by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) reminds them that more bombs hit Hamburg during a single weekend than had fallen on London during the entire Second World War.
Kent sets the film in the dead of winter, as if it would be unseemly to show sunshine amid such suffering. The German inhabitants bitterly resent the British forces who’ve taken charge of the city. The British suspect that many of the local citizens are probably still unreconstructed Nazis. Hygiene as well as morale is suffering. One of the more telling details is that the Germans have lousy breath. “That’s what 900 calories a day does to you,” a British soldier notes of the miasmatic smell.
Somehow, against this very grim backcloth, true love blossoms. Keira Knightley plays Rachael Morgan, an improbably glamorous British woman who has just arrived in Hamburg to join her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), one of the senior officers in the British occupying force. They’ve been billeted to live in a beautiful country house owned by German architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård). Lubert still lives here with his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann), but is expecting to be turfed out and placed in a camp. The eminently decent Morgan decides to let the Luberts stay on.
It’s at this point an austere and well-observed drama begins to turn into a novelettish, Lady Chatterley-style romance. Rachael bitterly resents Lubert’s presence. She hates the way he skulks around the house, looks at her suggestively as they pass on the stairs or turns up in doorways when she least expects it. Her antagonism towards him masks a very obvious physical attraction. She watches with fascination from a high window as he chops wood in the backyard below.
All the characters here are trying to cope with intense bereavement. They’ve either lost a child or a parent or a spouse. For Lubert and Rachael, once their inevitable affair begins, the sex is cathartic. It helps them overcome their grief and anger. Lubert isn’t exactly a Mellors the gamekeeper type. He is an aristocrat forced by changing circumstances to eke out a living as a metal press operator while also working as a handyman for the Morgans. He is a source of erotic fascination for Rachael in a way that her husband clearly isn’t.
Rachael is the latest in a number of characters played by Knightley who have illicit romances across social or class lines. The role follows on from her Anna Karenina and from her part as the privileged young woman having sex in the library with the housekeeper’s son in Atonement. Knightley brings her usual febrile intensity and sensitivity to the role, but the film itself is strangely superficial in the way it deals with its characters’ emotions. There is little sense that The Aftermath is a Dr Zhivago-like romantic epic. This is too much of a genteel chamber piece for that.
One reason Colonel Morgan and Lubert develop such a rapport, even as one man cuckolds the other, is that they are both from the same social backgrounds. Their two countries may just have been at war but they have more in common than they do with many of their own compatriots. They’re upper middle-class types with perfect manners. Lubert loves art and classical music – another reason Rachael is so drawn to him. When she plays the Steinway piano, he looks on, utterly rapt.
The pick of the performances here comes from Jason Clarke as the British officer and husband. He is such a decent sort that he never judges anybody. While the rest of the British officers despise the Germans, he is looking for reconciliation. He is a victim of his own good nature. Neither Lubert nor Rachael show any particular guilt about their treatment of him. Clarke plays him as a very British kind of martyr, suffering inwardly, too repressed ever to reveal his real emotions and always ready to forgive anyone who betrays him.
The scenes in the country house could belong to a different film than those in battle-scarred Hamburg itself. It’s as if two different movies have been grafted together: one about Germany “year zero” as the country struggles with the devastation left by the war and one about an affair which enables the lovers to forget their circumstances. Kent (who also directed the Vera Brittain adaptation A Testament of Youth) struggles to combine the different elements. The Aftermath begins as if it is a modern-day equivalent to the neorealist films that Roberto Rossellini and others made in Europe at the end of the war, but quickly turns into an escapist romance.
The relationship between Lubert and Rachael is depicted in a very ambivalent fashion. On the one hand, it is shown as being reckless and destructive. On the other, it is depicted as a therapeutic way for the two lovers to overcome the trauma of war and rebuild their lives. Their relationship is mirrored by that between Lubert’s teenage daughter Freda and a gimlet-eyed young German terrorist who yearns to kill British officers. This briefly lends urgency to the storytelling. There are consequences for the lovers. Their actions aren’t just threatening marriages, but are putting lives at risk. The Aftermath, though, is a very well-mannered melodrama. Much of the darkness and primal emotion you might expect to find in such a story is strained out. The filmmakers are more interested in showing Knightley in lambent close-ups that make her look like a 1940s movie star than in exploring the misery and contradictions of the period.
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