It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.
The screenplay puts us in the picture: more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. British officer Lewis Morgan requisitions a German mansion, but being a civilized fellow, doesn’t send the family packing.
Its owner, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), is an architect and father whose wife died in the British firestorm. Joining this mansion share – it could be a reality show! – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightly), 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 that her stoic husband would rather work long hours saving Germany than confront their loss.
This sets up an obvious love triangle, yet despite focusing on the affair, the film relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he looks like Skarsgård that it isn’t alarming.
Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a bomb on the book and hollowed it out. The final romantic twist is axed, the Freda side story goes nowhere, we only get an indication of Lewis’s political role…etc.
The cast do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and The Aftermath will get you Googling “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 (in a manner of speaking). 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, fifteen, notes how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he speaks of his professional ambitions, religion, art, and grief. It’s a slow burn, two people brought together by loss – unlike the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough.
It’s zero hour, and they both want a better world, one where people talk about what matters. Clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade, yet when he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.
With their parents busy, 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.
The Aftermath has a compelling premise, and its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense make a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.