It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.
Opening title cards inform us that more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. Among the scores who died in the firestorm was the wife of German architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).
Top British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) requisitions Lubert’s palatial home, but being a decent fellow, doesn’t send its owner packing. Joining the mansion share – it could be a reality show – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightley), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.
If she’s a bit chilly with Lubert and his resentful daughter Freda, things are quite tepid in the Morgan marriage too, with Rachael angry her husband would rather save Germany than confront their loss.
The obvious love triangle relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust (his potential Nazi affiliation remains under investigation) to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he resembles Skarsgård that it isn’t terrifying.
Personally, I find Clarke more attractive!
Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a payload on the book, with the final romantic twist axed, and Lewis’s political role reduced to dust.
Despite the devastation, Hamburg is a lovely backdrop for romance, even as the Germans starve and dig their loved ones from the ruins. So while the cast try to do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, things are picturesque enough to want to Google “houses on the river Elbe”.
The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook
We first meet Rachael Morgan, muttering to herself on a train, as she travels to Germany with her 11-year-old son Edmund. The death of her older boy Michael has caused her to ‘think with a limp’.
Now her war-weary husband wants her to sleep with the enemy – staying in the home of widowed German architect Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter Freda. Rachael’s pretty, but provincial – not a fashion plate. She mixes with the class-conscious army wives, all ‘uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds.’
Freda notices how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. But Herr Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he talks about his professional ambitions, art, and grief. In this zero hour, they both hope for a better world to rise.
It’s a slow burn between two people brought together by loss – compared to the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough. Meanwhile, clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade. When he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.
Of course she is cut from the screen version, as is the surviving Morgan son, Edmund. This is a shame, as the character brought a wonderful childlike perspective to the mistrust between two countries.
With their parents busy, both the Lubert daughter, Freda, and Edmund roam. Joining fellow Hamburgers clearing rubble, Freda meets a Nazi youth interested in Chez Lubert’s occupants, while Edmund befriends a feral gang – including the enterprising Ozi – who are in thrall to a sinister older boy.
Besides the compelling premise, the novel’s great strength is its skillful resolution of these multiple strands of narrative tension, mostly cut from the film. Its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense lead to a dramatic finale, compared to the film’s thin action.